On Interconnected Political Debacles: the City of Birmingham, the State of Alabama, and our never-particularly United States of America

As a rule, I have low expectations of those in political office – at every level. This country’s systems – at every level – have been biased from the outset toward the affluent, so that the pursuit of power, property, and profit frame public policy and public discourse.

That system of power often circumscribes and circumvents even the best efforts, intentions, and characters. 

Nonetheless, a spirit of public interest has managed to survive for a long time, kindled by uneven bits and pieces of a democratic and practical commitment to the greater good – including in some part to those disadvantaged by the system and the very Earth itself. 

The calculated withdrawal from that commitment to public good – and especially from the needs of marginalized people and the planet – traces most immediately back to the Reagan era 1980s, with specific roots in the would-be oligarchy’s opposition to 1860s-70s Reconstruction, 1900s Progressive Era, 1930s New Deal, and 1960s Great Society reformist public policies, as well as the broader enfranchisement represented by Women’s Suffrage and the Civil Rights Movement. 

(and, while embodying specific forms of progress, the reforms of those eras still never went far enough in inclusion and avoidance of harm to vulnerable people and the planet – but that’s a discussion for a different day)

Make no mistake – this autocratic neoliberalism is deliberate and it is comprehensive in its approach. And it has become much more efficient, skillfully manipulative, and technologically adept in its reach. 

At a national level, what we witness in the current president is jaw-dropping in its awfulness, but it is an unsurprising outcome of the trajectory of this country since the Reagan era (and that trajectory has been advanced by both parties, though to different degrees. The Democratic party under both B. Clinton and Obama has also been actively complicit, though Republican abdication of public interest has been of an entire different magnitude. Both are problematic, but one is clearly worse). 

It is wholesale capitulation to the mechanisms of concentrated private profit and ownership – at the expense of everything else, even human life, in a wholesale philosophy of commodification. 

Trump is more unprincipled – and louder – in his manipulation of identity politics to secure his power, but he’s just an unvarnished, unrestrained, accelerated embodiment of that whole agenda. 

On the state level, Alabama’s government has always leaned this way. Such tenets are obviously well-enshrined in the 1901 Constitution. But the Powers-that-Were-&-Are did a clever end run on us 2010-2012. Those forces now maintain an effective stranglehold on power in Montgomery, which ensures that Montgomery continues to have a stranglehold on the rest of the state. That Governor Ivey has maintained a mask ordinance in the actual public interest is a wholesale minor miracle.

And as for this city: those same forces of white-supremacy-entrenched, resource-extraction-based capitalism have also long held sway in Birmingham. But there has also been a long tradition of a public sector structured to at least ensure essential public spaces and institutions (libraries, neighborhood associations, public works, parks and rec, schools, and so on). 

It also provided for a civil service sector to run that infrastructure. That essential sector provided economic mobility for those employed and a significant degree of economic stability for their extended networks. The positive effects permeated the entire community for decades.

Here, as elsewhere, that sector has been the subject of political patronage – and some folks ascend and others take a hit as the top of the municipal tickets change. But on the whole, it’s an infrastructure that provides meaningful services, often through longstanding relationships, to the whole of the city – not just those who can pay for perks and private delights and comforts. 

And if properly directed, it’s a structure that could address issues of widespread poverty and the need for a scaffolding of affordable housing, public transit, food security, accessible healthcare, and quality education. 

If properly directed. 

Birmingham municipal leadership has ebbed and flowed in how well it engaged the public sector and the public platform to tend to the needs of ALL its people. That has been a matter of variable commitment, variable integrity, and variable competence at navigating through civic inertias, possibilities, and external constraints. 

What’s going on now is an entirely different game.

Over the last couple of years, Birmingham has fallen fully into line with this orienting principle of neoliberal privatization that we see at work nationally and globally. 

It is premised upon the dismantling of the public sector (other than increasingly militarized mechanisms of social control) in favor of privatization, which can be outright or through ‘public-private partnerships.’

While these forces have long been one part of the equation, the comparatively recent complete embrace represents a paradigm shift in local politics – and it will benefit the affluent, both of this city and of the surrounding suburbs, at the expense of poor and working-class folks (who in this city are overwhelming Black – this is a narrative of institutional white supremacy, regardless of who advances it). 

The direction and intent has been clear for a while now, but the COVID era has offered opportunities to accelerate the process.

The current budget debacle has been a clear illustration. We will see more of such maneuvers in the weeks and months to come, I fear. Last night’s City Council meeting, which ultimately passed that budget, was raw theater for this manipulative power. 

So – the combined forces of the Mayor’s office and a (at least) 5-person lockstep voting bloc of the City Council provides all that the Local Powers That Be need to move the agenda of neoliberal privatization on along full apace.  

The current occupants of those offices are apparently willing to ride that heady mix of power’s endorsement and opportunity. It may continue to get them somewhere, especially if they are willing to resurrect ethics only for superficial viewing in campaign promises. Yet they should be aware that the system they’ve pledged into also regards them as disposable. 

That this paradigm shift took hold by manipulating grassroots electoral methods and promises is a particular sin. When some of you pledged a vow of servant leadership, you certainly did not make clear who and whose interests you intended to serve. 

Things will get complicated as we move on along. The 2021 local elections are already kicking in. Some of the critiques we are hearing now and in the time to come are motivated by the speaker’s own political ambitions and opportunism. Let us listen for that – and ask questions. There may be true and honest leaders – and we need those leaders with wisdom and integrity – mixed among those folks, but we will have to discern carefully. Nothing and no one is a given.  

There will also continue to be people who genuinely believe in actual equity, care, and justice for people and the planet – enacted with skill and with a dedicated concern for civic and common good. There are people with real integrity speaking into this struggle. I do my best to count among that number. My own personal interests might be better served by being quiet, but the ethical imperatives of my faith compel me to speak out. This is pastoral work and this is a Christian commitment for me.

On the national level, the choices are pretty clear, if less than we might have hoped for. 

Closer to home, we’ll have to keep paying attention, keep asking questions, keep making demands on the system that it be more genuinely accountable, equitable, and just in service of the public interest, and keep taking it to the streets when the interests of the commons are unheard and unheeded.

Let us never cease to ask the questions: “who benefits from this” “whom is this intended for?” “who may be harmed by this, whether it’s intentional or not?” And if the answer comes at the expense of marginalized people or the planet for the sake of the Affluent Class or the powers of patriarchy and white supremacy, we have to be ready to speak back and push back. 

Many thanks to all who have worked so hard to create structures for participatory budgeting and people’s power, liberated from political manipulation. Your expertise, dedication, witness, and example are a great gift to us all – and it is my joy to journey with you in this work.

Amen

Support Amazing Grassroots BIPOC-led Organizations

These are human-scale, grassroots, BIPOC*-led (and mostly black-women led) organizations doing vital work on the ground in under-resourced communities in Alabama without tons of institutional support. 

(*BIPOC – Black, Indigenous, and People of Color – this term helps to avoid the erasure of Indigenous Peoples)

These are real folks doing the work of real equity and justice every single day.

Please, please support them. 

Dynamite Hill-Smithfield Community Land Trust
paypal: dynamitehillclt@gmail.com

Fountain Heights Farm 
paypal – https://www.paypal.me/MDVillanueva

No More Martyrs
donation page – https://www.givelify.com/givenow/1.0/MzIxODk=/selection

TAKE Resource Center 
donation page –https://www.takebhm.org/donate

Yes, I Have a Therapist 
paypal – https://www.paypal.me/YesIHaveATherapist

Our Firm Foundation
donation page – https://www.ourfirmfoundation.org/donate

Be a Blessing Birmingham
paypal – https://bit.ly/2ZZcvSY

Black Belt Citizens 
mail a check to
Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice
23355 County Rd 53
Uniontown, AL 36786

Literary Healing Arts Foundation
Cash App $salaamgr

People’s Justice Council 
https://www.thepeoplesjusticecouncil.org/donate

Margins: Women Helping Black Women 
donation page

GASP – not BIPOC-staff-led, but majority POC board. Funnels resources directly into Collegeville/Fairmont/Harriman Park – https://gaspgroup.org/support-gasp/

Offender Alumni Association
https://www.offenderalumniassociation.org/donate

Birmingham Bail Fund –
UPDATED – centralized link
https://givebutter.com/NobodyLeftBehindBailFund

The Internet and Private Space

As I was working on the wording of last Sunday’s sermon the other day, I stumbled over some wording that stirred up my thinking about one of the complexities of this moment. 

As I was writing, I tossed out the comment “in public on the internet.” 

I left the phrase in my sermon because it fit in contrast to “in public in person” for conveying the intent of a relatively minor point.

Yet I knew even then that it was problematic. 

Because there is no public space on the internet.  

Every online space is also a product, a personally or organizationally branded and controlled transactional, manipulated invention. 

There are people and organizations that offer opn spaces, but ultimately such a space still belongs to the entity that curates or moderates it,  that constructs it or pays for its domain name and server space. 

As with all things, there are trade offs. 

Online spaces are more accessible than physical ones for a range of folks and a range of reasons. 

That is good.

At the same time, they are less accessible to others. 

That is not good. 

And beyond the question of accessibility, they are still privately controlled. They produce and are a product of the ongoing erosion of public space, the wholesale dominance of an enacted ideology of privatization. 

Some of us are deeply disturbed by hardened postmodern neoliberal capitalism’s commodification of all things, its reduction of all matters of life to economic transactionalism. 

A shift of activity from physical spaces to online ones inescapably intensifies the process of privatization. 

I don’t see how it cannot, at least not under contemporary paradigms of privatized internet space. 

And of course I’m participating in one right here. 

Before all this started, I had begun studying Shosana Zuboff’s work on surveillance capitalism – and also begun trying, if not to extricate myself and the church from it – because I’m not sure that’s even possible – at least to develop alternative ways of communication and representation as well. 

But in the urgency of this moment, I’ve had to set that aside and lean fully into efficient, broad-reaching, monetized privately controlled internet spaces – like this one and like Google’s suite of products – for the purposes of conversation, substantive work, and meaningful connection beyond the walls of my household. 

I simply don’t have the resources of time, energy, money, and knowledge to do otherwise and still get all the necessary (or at least a significant portion of the necessary) things done. 

Even beyond those exigencies, I’m increasingly aware of how our cultural worldview and expectations – perhaps even our ways of understanding knowledge-making and being – are being shaped by our reliance on and seduction by such pervasive privatized methods and mediums/media. 

It can be democratic in certain ways, but in all things it is entirely reliant on the money and control mechanisms of the private market. 

I am SURE there are folks working in this field, likely even in analyzing and theorizing cultural production in the COVID era – and it may be that Zuboff has more to say about this in particular and I just haven’t gotten there. 

So this is still an evolving thought on my part – and I need to do more lit search to properly situate it. 

But I want to go ahead and set it out there because it’s important as a touchstone of understanding about how we are forming and being formed by powerful forces motivated by particular agendas (some of which are good in my opinion and some not – but it’s critical to recognize them as private agendas operating in privatized spaces no matter what). 

I welcome thoughts and feedback, as well as references to work by others in this area.  

Easter and the Capitalist Resurrection

Never mind that
you are gasping
for breath
and still
contagious.

Come sunrise
on Resurrection Day,
you will surely see
the (dollar) signs
gathered
round the
idol’s outstretched
grasping
hand

No stone of
conscience
to roll
away

Christ, the
Market is
Risen
today.
Ahhhh
le
lu
YEAH
we are
back in
business

All Hail the
Power of
Preserv’d
Profit as
Elijah and
Moses
would surely
agree.

Lord we lift your
Golden Calf
on high

Up from the
Grave the
Economy
Arose and
We All
Rejoiced

Rep. Ilhan Omar and the Same Old Questions

I’ve been pondering what to say about the recent/ongoing controversies around the president and Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The problem is that there’s really nothing new to say. These are the same old questions of power and ethics.

However, the lessons remain important – and never more so than during Holy Week, so:

The critically important voices of women of color are massively underrepresented in public discourse in our culture. May we listen and learn from them, recognizing and respecting that those voices are particular rather than monolithic.

White imperial capitalist patriarchy perpetually reacts with violence to challenges to its ill-gotten hegemonic power. The intensity of reaction generally mirrors the intensity of the perceived threat. This power is unambiguously harmful to people and the planet.

Cultural pluralism is one of the greatest gifts of life in the contemporary United States. In that context, religious differences ought to be a site of blessing and respect. May we who are not Muslim hold Muslims in our hearts as our friends and neighbors.

Our lives are suffused with holiness — of time, place, and being. We must actively, daily choose to grasp that reality, to live that way rather than drowning in the transactionalism of contemporary society, that system of dominance that reduces all worth to that of economic production and consumption.

Let those of us who claim an ethical principle of living, rooted in religious faith or not, do our best to embody compassion, justice, respect, and love in ways that reject exploitation, dehumanization, and commodification of all living beings and the whole of Creation.

That is the work of living in this age.

We do this work and walk this path together.

Amen

On Identity and Wholeness and the Gifts We Bring to the World

I haven’t been posting much on here lately, but I’m aiming to do a better job of at least including here some of the longer format things I write for other spaces (from sermons to Facebook posts).  On that note  . . .

During last week’s concert at Beloved, Gaelynn Lea took some time to talk about disability, artistry, and identity.

She spoke of not wanting the label of ‘disabled musician’ in that the qualifier somehow sets her apart (generally meant in a diminished way) from being a ‘musician.’ And yet at the same time, she explained how her disability is also a defining gift of her humanity and of how she engages with her music and with the world.

Her points echo with a post I shared yesterday about women pastors (worth a read if you missed it – great piece). Women pastors are simply pastors. Yet for nearly all whom I know, their gender is a part of what makes them so very good at walking in their calling.

I definitely see it my own experience. As an out lesbian, to the extent that I am skilled at being a human being and a pastor, it is because of who I am – and my embrace of who I am – not in spite of it. Ideally, there is a dual, entwined respect for me for my own particular (queer) expression of humanity and yet also for the universality of me as (among other things) simply a pastor.

It’s simultaneously an appeal to universality and to particularity. Neither alone captures the whole of the experience – and it’s a reductionist (even violent) move to try to make it do so.

The problem is with the norm – we talk about a man and a black man – or a pastor and a woman pastor – or an musician and a disabled musician – or a writer and a trans writer – or . . .

With such a move, we posit a norm around gender, race, (dis)ability status, sexual orientation, gender identity and so on. Reinforcing norms of whiteness, patriarchy, heteronormativity, biological essentialism, ableism, and so on is the daily practice of the dominant discourse, in which we all often participate.

At the same time, tropes of color-blindness, erasure of LGBTQ+ identity, glossing over disability status, and other refusals to acknowledge difference reinscribe that same norm. So – ‘ah you black people are really just like us white people’. Or ‘you queer people are really just like us cis-het people’.

Umm . . . no. It’s not true and it’s not a kindness to assert it – because it disregards the gifts born of diverse experience (and of course it does – because the dominant discourse does not see those gifts as gifts, but as threats).

Undoing this is hard. The tendency to frame a universal goes back as far in Western thought at least to Plato. And we are constantly soaked in our culture’s intentional racism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia, sexism, and so on – because that’s how the culture makes money and preserves power. Assimilationism is the same move in a different guise.

Let us do better.

Let us recognize the universal humanity of each person, while at the same time understanding the markers of identity that form their own particular being.

Let us interrogate the norms rather than accepting them as a given (let alone a natural or God-inspired given – because they are neither).

It will make us better people and grant us a better world. And it is work that we can do daily, both in decolonizing our own thinking and in creating a more genuinely inclusive practice in the world.

Amen

Finding the Sacred in the Everyday: Part II – Justice and the Other

We’ll begin today with a quote from Father Daniel Berrigan, who passed from this world into the next yesterday after a long life of faithful work for justice-

“Obviously there will be no genuine peace while such an inherently violent scheme of things continues. America will in time extricate herself from the bloody swamps, the ruined villages, the mutilated dead of Vietnam. But nothing will be settled there, nothing mitigated at home. Nothing changed, that is, until a change of heart leads us to a change of social structures in every area of our lives.”

Justice for the Other is a sacred task.

It’s a humbling thing to be talking about justice here today because I know this is a congregation for whom a desire for justice is woven into the fabric of your faith – we can see how it says so right there in your bulletin.

We talked last week about connecting with the sacred in ourselves – and I suspect for many here that’s a more challenging concept than the notion that we would find the sacred among others and especially among the Other – those whom our society marginalizes for one reason or another.

Today we are talking about how people in the spring of 2016 living in Birmingham Alabama, participating in the life of this congregation – how can you encounter the sacred in the lives of others and live out a path of justice?

First of all, I know that many of you already are doing so. Let us take a moment to celebrate the consistent witness of this congregation and you among it on so many vital issues. Let us be grateful that you create and hold a progressive, inclusive faith space in an environment where those can be difficult to find.

Do you do this perfectly? I suspect not. I’ve never known any congregation who did. But from what I know you strive to make the connections between how we ought to live and how we do live – and how we treat one another, both individually and systemically.

Thank you for that. That is a calling and it is a gift to you and through you to the broader community.

That ought to be said.

And because I know you take this commitment seriously, today I’m going to offer to you a few further reflections rooted in my own years of social justice engagement and in my sense of your community – each of you on your individual journeys and along your path together.

I am going to make 4 points (and don’t worry, I’ll make them briefly) –

1)  let us realize that we are not all called to do the same sort of work. This was the message I offered the young people – and let me reassert it now. Any work for justice is built on a variety of tasks. Some people are good at critique. Others create. Some people are the logistics folks. Vision and practicality. It takes all of us. Often we devalue our own roles. Or we criticize others because they are not just like us.

Don’t get me wrong – accountability is important and we need to examine critical words to figure out if we can learn something from them. Or to offer some critical words – from a place of love, not ego. But we’re in this together – and we do the work best when we do what we are called to do and support others in what they are called to do.

That acknowledges the sacred in ourselves and in the others whom we struggle alongside.

So that’s first. In the struggle for justice, let us keep building one another up.

2)  we know there is a constant struggle for justice and against oppression across difference.

We can name forms of oppression –

Systemic racism
Sexism and patriarchy
Homophobia and heterosexism
Ableism
Ageism
Colonialism
Militarism
Materialism

Systemic discrimination because of economic status or class, national origin, religion (or lack thereof). There are others.

And today we especially honor International Workers Day. We remember the long history of labor demands and the ongoing needs for wage justice across the globe. The obstacles to minimum wage legislation locally are just one example in the ongoing demand for dignity and a fair wage for all working people, for all who want and need to work.

Today is also International Family Equality Day, a world-wide celebration of the LGBTQ parenting and family community and a time of recognition that many parents and their children continue to face discrimination and the threat of violence. In a week that has seen Oxford threaten to jail transgender people based on bathroom use and Chief Justice Roy Moore publically reiterating his claim that same-sex marriage violates state law, we must celebrate loving and caring family in all of its formations.

Each of the causes, each of these demands for justice and experience of injustice bring their own specific conditions.

We can acknowledge that no paths are the same while we at once recognize that the forces of oppression have something in common.

Our culture continues to set forth a particular norm. And with that norm goes power in society. And across that norm – on the other side, you find less power, less value.

Across that norm, we move from subject to object. And if we look around the room, there are ways in which we all cross that norm – you might be a black straight woman or a low-income white man. You might be a Latino man with dementia. Or a trans Muslim youth.

We flip across the continuum of power in all of our identities – and we owe it to the quest for justice to recognize the ways in which we are granted power, even as in other ways we are denied it.

And further to understand that the intersections of those layers of identity render people especially privileged. Or especially vulnerable.

That is the reality of our world. The question to us is what we do with it.

IT DOES NOT HAVE TO BE THIS WAY. This is not some natural order. We have constructed a society in which difference is viewed with suspicion and denied full humanity – or the full respect of creation if we look beyond human life into the health of our ecosystems and the future of the planet.

This is human-made.

Injustice is persistent and pervasive but we always have choices. We always have the capacity to assert that the system as we know it is wrong.

We are not all the same. But our differences can be viewed as a source of richness, as the vibrant texture of our full humanity, as the opportunity to come to come into relationships of mutuality.

We have that choice. To embrace and assert the value of a pluralistic world, one that celebrates rather than erases differences and yet strives for full justice and full value and the recognition of the full humanity of all people and indeed the value and meaning of all creation.

This requires us continually to educate ourselves. No matter how much we know, there is more to learn. Change is a constant. And it is not the responsibility of people at the margins or those whom we have made vulnerable in our society to educate us. We must not assume that our good intentions entitle us to relationship. When we’re in the position of privilege – we have to do our own work.

We can learn to respect people as the subjects of their own lives rather than as the objects of our derision or mockery OR our charity or aspirations for them.

When we bring our open hearts and our open minds – and when we leave our defensiveness and our egos and our need to be the good white person/straight person/ally/and so on back at home – we can find the room to do meaningful work.

We may not always be setting the agenda. Maybe we just need to show up and listen and then take what we’ve learned back to our own communities and circles.

And there, even in the most hard-hearted places of ingrained racism or sexism or homophobia, maybe we find that through our commitment, our compassion, and our ever-growing wisdom maybe we find the opportunities to chip away at oppression at its source.

That is difficult and delicate work – and if we wield our truths like an angry hammer – well, sometimes we have to do that – but most of the time, if we look, we can find ways to speak truth to power has a chance to be heard. And a lot of times, it may not even be about the person you’re speaking directly to. Even if you are just disrupting the illusion of consensus, you may be speaking a truth that someone needs to hear – and doing what’s right because it’s right.

3) Okay, so having talked about justice as own specific identities and at the intersections, let’s widen the circle a little. The way that we do community can be a radical act of justice. In a world of commodification and consumerism, creating spaces of intentional genuine community – community that has porous borders, so that it’s open to all – community where people can join in relationship – that is a justice act.

And it is from that community and from those relationships that we come to understand the visceral realities of the structures of power and privilege. These connections can be counter-cultural. They can interrupt norms.

And I know y’all know that.  This congregation is one of those places.

But I also know that – as I said earlier – no gathering of human people is perfect. And I know that times of transition are hard. And the world that we live in today encourages us to harden our edges. So as a friend to this community, I want to take this opportunity to reiterate the importance of building real, non-exclusive, mutually-accountable, open-hearted relationships among yourselves.

This takes commitment and patience. It is active and evolving. We bring the world with us – and all of our own stuff – when we walk through these doors. But in your willingness to do this work, to dedicate this effort, you create something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

4) Finally, I know we could spend all day talking about layers and levels of injustice and the struggle to achieve justice, but I will close with one other matter that takes us out another level into the community.

One element of my own current work is a focus on how we regard the question of economic development in our city and in our state. There are a lot of wonderful things happening in Birmingham right now. But in some cases they are happening – as these things have ALWAYS happened here – on the backs of the poorest among us. I’m talking about what, depending on how you look at it, is described as neighborhood revitalization or as gentrification.

I’m all about cool places to eat and fixing up dilapidated housing and craft beer – seriously, we can say that in the UU church, right? Good beer is a great thing.

But once again it comes at a price – and it does not take much digging at all to realize that this is absolutely a consistent pattern over the whole of the history of this metropolitan area — we put the interests of business and of the relatively affluent above the needs of the poor.

In Birmingham, this is always a racialized narrative as well, so that we have the needs of poor black and brown people subsumed to the profit and pleasure of the affluent, who are predominantly, though not exclusively, white. Poor people of color are displaced in the name of so-called economic and neighborhood development. We see it decade after decade in the history our city and it is happening now.

Unfortunately, the sides on this argument have come to a point where everyone more or less knows what the other is going to say.

Add to that that these are complicated, nuanced issues, where the economic engines involved have become ever-more sophisticated in their presentation and the methods.

Add in the persistent pernicious ideology of globalization which is constantly soaked into our outlook. Gentrification is globalization made manifest at a local level.

If we take it out another level, we see the ways in which the economic development rhetoric in our state tends to happen at the expense of the natural environment.

Disposable people, disposable ecosystems.

Collateral damage laid on the altar of profit and productivity.

I raise these issue here today not because we can fully address it – I myself often have more questions than solutions, but because I would like to invite you as a religious community to participate in a broader religious dialogue on gentrification. This is not a centralized conversation, but instead a grassroots effort to bring our lens of faith to examine such questions as

Who benefits from economic revitalization and neighborhood (re)development and at whose expense does it take place? and

How should we as religious communities and individuals respond to the fact that current models of economic and neighborhood development do little to disrupt systems that marginalize significant groups of people – because they are rooted in neoliberal economic approaches and top-down strategies that reinforce outsider hierarchies rather than grassroots participation.

Make no mistake that they are more sophisticated than past blunt tools of legalized racial segregation and so-called urban renewal. But they are this century’s face of our continued neglect of the most vulnerable among us in the service of a cultural narrative of economic self-sufficiency and continued accumulation of wealth and power for a sliver of the populace.

In a world that does not now and will not ever IN the current economic system have enough living wage jobs for people to gainfully support themselves, I would argue that it is of great relevance on International Workers Day to question the status quo – and the violence it does to people on the economic margins.

If this question of a religious dialogue on gentrification and how you might bring a UU faith lens to examine these issues has any interest to you – either as individuals or as a community, please let me know. This is an organically evolving dialogue and I would love to discuss at some point in the days, weeks, or months ahead how we might productively generate such a conversation here and what sort of action might come out of it.

As we conclude these meditations on finding the sacred among us in everyday life, on living out a path of justice, I offer more words from Daniel Berrigan:

“For my part, I believe that the vain, glorious and the violent will not inherit the earth.  In pursuance of that faith my friends and I take the hands of the dying in our hands. And some of us travel to the Pentagon, and others live in the Bowery and serve there, and others speak unpopularly and plainly. It is all one.”

On the Opposite of Blight

When I first wrote about the question of blight (here) , I said I’d offer some follow-up thoughts. I have’t yet circled back around to the topic yet, but a morning walk with one of the dogs left me thinking about the opposite of “blight” — vibrant urban communities.

During our travels, we’ve stayed in busy city neighborhoods in the Bronx, New York and Jamaica Plain, Boston. This block of Centre Street offers a pretty good example of my basic point today.

WP_20150530_08_31_12_Pro

It has a spiffy little restaurant. In fact, it has several of them.

But it also has a dentist, a lawyer, a barber, a pet supplies shop, a travel agent, and a general goods store. Within a couple of blocks, you can find a grocery market, a bike shop, several more down-to-earth eateries, a beauty shop, a physical therapist, a co-op bookstore, a tailor, and a small park.

(though maybe not a parking space – but that’s okay because it’s possible to get around on foot and public transit here)

WP_20150530_08_33_32_ProThrow in a a little public art

Also critical – this neighborhood, known as Hyde Square, has housing options that support an economically diverse, multi-ethnic community. All of these components add up to a desirable, livable area for a range of people.

“Blight” as a term gets applied to dilapidated housing or commercial building stock. Blight, however, really ought to refer to communities barren of cultural vibrancy and relational vitality.

When we talk about revitalizing areas, too often we see a focus on creating playgrounds for the affluent – rows of upscale restaurants, renovated apartments with high-end countertops and appliances, and boutique-y shops that cater to suburban browsers. We fail to focus on the web of everyday interactions and transactions that make living possible and desirable.

Hyde Square has a rich variety of public space and private space, a necessary (although not sufficient condition – we’ll keep looking at that) condition for avoiding “blight.”

Prayer for Wednesday, the Week After Holy Week

The day after
the day after
the day after Easter
is still
Easter.

We have seen the stone
moved away.
Fled in terror.
Fast forwarded to the
present moments’
pastel joys and
vivid sorrows.

Most merciful and loving God

We beg to remain joyful, to
stand still awed, to
stand still in our own fear and trembling.

We pray today for nuclear negotiations
feckless politicians
drought conditions.

We lift up educational testing and
students who dream of learning and
those who don’t know how.

We grieve those who pass from
our earthly world unto yours.
We grieve their absence and our longing.

We rejoice with music on the radio
strings and brass and pipes or
lyrics that we know.

We rejoice with baseball games, dear God, and
long glorious sunsets
ephemeral spring flowers
small green leaves on trees.

We rejoice with soft voices,
tucking our children tenderly
beneath light covers
in the deep quiet of darkness.

Near and distant God,

we pray today for the
students of Garissa, for
those who died and
those who live on.

We rejoice for Anthony Ray Hinton
as we face the shame of our efforts meant to kill him.
We are thankful
this man was spared.

In this Easter season,
we know that you, God, are everywhere among us,
we are reminded that we see you and must seek you especially
among the least of these.

We pray for the memory of Jesus Christ,
shot in the back.
Jesus Christ, also known as
Walter L. Scott
formerly of North Charleston, South Carolina.

We pray for the memory of Jesus Christ, also known as
Rodney Todd
and his 7 children aged 6-15
Cameron
ZhiHeem
Tyjuziana
Tykeria
TyNijuzia
TyNiah
TyBregia

In this Easter season, dear God,
we pray for the people of
Aleppo, Ayotzinapa, and Aden.
We pray for Muslims and Jews and Christians
in Israel and Palestine.
We pray for
peace
justice
mercy
food, shelter, safety
medical care
books
pencils
laughter.

God of love and light
God of mercy and justice
God of yesterday and tomorrow
God of this moment
this moment of Easter

We lift our hearts unto you and
raise a loud

Amen.

 

 

 

 

Church Parking Lot Ambiguity: Part I

Still not the what-to-do-about blight/Part II post (I’m still thinking), but an encounter from a while back. I’ve noted it as as Part I. That’s not because I have an immediate sequel in mind, but because there are many situations where mercy, justice, and moral ambiguity (and sometimes parking lots) intersect. It will come up again.

I attend Sunday worship in a busy, diverse urban neighborhood. One warm day, my daughter and I were walking across the parking lot at church after the early service, talking about a quick stop at the grocery store on our way home. We greeted the crew of regulars who sit, smoke, and talk on a short flowerbed wall between the two doors that most people use to enter the education building. I nodded to a short white woman in overall shorts talking on her cell phone after we turned the corner. We were about 10 feet from our car when I heard the words behind me “Hey, let me call you back in a minute.”

I knew what was coming.

“Hey, excuse me.”

We turn to face the woman in the overalls coming toward us. I’m only 5’2”, but I’ve got a good 3+ inches on her. I take her to be just few years older than me, but she has the familiar look of hard living. She reaches us and says “I get my food stamps on Thursday, but I was wondering if you would help me with some groceries or something until then.”

Ah, hell.

(that’s what I say on the inside.)

On the outside, I look politely at her, but pause before replying. She keeps talking – “I’ve gotten vouchers here before. I know Rev. Sally. Can you help me just until Thursday? I can’t come during the week because I’m working. I work 7-3:30 and I live over there in housing at the Neighborhood House just over there and I used to have a car but it quit working and you don’t know anybody that has a car I could pay on a little at a time, do you? They take us to the store and I’ll have my food stamps on Thursday and I work during the day, but I’m looking for an evening job. Do you know anybody looking to hire for the evenings? Just right there at the Village Market so I’ll have something to eat until I get my food stamps. ”

She looks at me. My 13-year-old looks at me.

Ah, hell.

I start with the easy route – “I don’t actually work here. I just come for church. I don’t know anything about the vouchers.”

She looks at me. My 13-year old looks at me.

The narrative that runs through my brain in about 15 seconds: I’veNeverSeenThisWomanHereBefore. IHateItWhenPeopleComeUpToMeInParkingLots. MyKidIsWatchingThisForALesson. WhatLessonDoesThatNeedToBe? I’veJustBeenToChurch. ThereAreSoManyNeedsInThisNeighborhood. ICan’tHelpThemAll. IsSheJustTryingToRipMeOff? ForGOD’SSakeIAmTakingAClassCalledEatingAndDrinkingWithJesusAndIStillDon’tKnowWhatIsTheBestThingToDo. IHaveJustBeenToChurchAndThisWomanIsTellingMeSheNeedsFood. WhereIsEverybodyElse? Sigh . . .

I have been in this situation countless times across my life and across the world. It is never easy for me to discern the optimal thing to do. Never. I am always winging it.

We have a mutual moment of silence there in the parking lot under a bright morning’s sun. Then I commit.

“So you just want to go down the street to Village Market and get a few things to last you until Thursday?” She nods. “Okay, c’mon. That’s my car right there. My name is Jennifer and this is my daughter, Lillian.”

She introduces herself as Gina. We talk about kids. I tell her Lillian is my only one. Hers are grown. She worries about her younger son, Vic, who is serving in the infantry in Afghanistan.

As we enter the small neighborhood store, I tell Gina, “Look. I’ve got some money, but not a whole lot of extra money. Will you make sure you just get what you need until your food stamps come?” She reassures me of her thrifty intent.

Gina picks out simple items, looking for what’s on sale: bread, eggs, Vienna sausages, orange juice, chips, sandwich meat, and cheese slices. I help her find a 2 liter bottle of diet Mountain Dew and don’t begrudge her a pack of the gum she likes. I grab a few items as well so that Lillian and I don’t have to make another stop. Gina’s portion of the groceries total up to $32.

After we’ve loaded our purchases into my car, she starts talking about paying me back in food stamps and recites her cell phone number. I ask her to show some kindness to other people she meets. I consider this a practical response. We drive the couple of blocks to her apartment, help her take the groceries to her doorstep, and tell her we’ll pray for Vic in Afghanistan. On the subsequent 10 minute drive home, Lillian and I discuss of the moral murkiness of the situation. I finally conclude with the thought to her that no matter what the truth of the matter is, the food will get eaten by someone further down the hierarchy of wealth and power than we are. I’ve modeled decency, I hope, by being friendly without prying, respectful but careful. I tell her it’s hard to know what to do.

And it is.