Broad Views, Mutual Boot-Straps and Strong Foundations

SanFrancisco
1906 aerial photograph by George R. Lawrence/Library of Congress

 

I read an interesting story in the New York Times by Thomas Fuller, Anjali Singhvi and Josh Williams entitled “San Francisco’s Big Seismic Gamble.” What most captured my attention as I read it was the different interests described and how those interests could either conflict with each other or work together to provide a more unobstructed view of the whole. The synergy of a society/community/nation allows us to live much more fulfilled and secure lives than we might alone. As Aristotle first observed, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

If one subscribes to any singular “interest” described, they would be blinded to other significant points of view. For example, if everyone subscribed singularly to the “fear of The Big One,” San Francisco wouldn’t exist as the world-class city it has become. However, if we only subscribe to “unlimited economic/business/development” as the highest good, we see codes relaxed to promote such development without looking to the broader good.

I’ll admit from the outset that I’ve never lived in the Bay area and I didn’t even stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.  I’m not making a statement here about who should or shouldn’t live there and what they should or shouldn’t build.  I’m not qualified.  Being from Louisiana, it always frustrates me when people who know little about an area ask why anyone would rebuild where another hurricane is likely to occur.   The answer is, “because it’s my home.”  A quick response to that has often been, “then don’t ask me to pay for it (via taxes, government assistance, etc.).” The facts are, as citizens of an actual country with actual people from all points of an actual economic spectrum who live from actual sea to actual shining sea, we ALL pay for it. We are all in it together. Or at least we should be.

There are many interesting things about this Times story: The rebuilding of a city following a catastrophic natural disaster. The fading memory of history. The change from “low-rise” to “high-rise”. The science of earthquakes. The fact that the AVERAGE price of a home in San Francisco is $1.2 million. The hubris of “we saw that as a symbol of the new San Francisco and we wanted the building to be at least 1,000 feet tall.” The fact that the building across the street from this “symbol” has “sunk a foot and a half and is leaning 14 inches toward neighboring high-rises” in the 9 years since it was completed. Most of this “new San Francisco” is built on ground that has a “very high risk of acting like quicksand during an earthquake, a process known as liquefaction.” All interesting. Much of it terrifying.

Ultimately, NONE of us actually “picked ourselves up by our boot-straps”. Someone made the boots and the straps. We are all standing on someone’s shoulders. Usually, this is solid support and foundation on which to be and become the people we were created to be. But also likely, we are standing on shoulders of people whom we are simply holding down. If we fail to recognize the instability of such shoulders—if we fail to realize that ALL of us are in this together and we must pull our entire community up by all of our boot-straps— I’m afraid this great society might just find it is built on a foundation that is at a very high risk of liquefaction.  That is a catastrophe that could actually be avoided.

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The People Who Walk in Darkness

The People Who Walk in Darkness
6th and San Pedro
Midnight Mission on the left. Central City Community Church of the Nazarene on the right.

I finally got around to reading Alex Ross’ piece in The New Yorker entitled, “Handel’s ‘Messiah’ On Skid Row.” I almost missed it. As is apt to happen with a relentless subscription to that weekly magazine, one day you set an issue by the reading chair with good intentions only to come home from work to find next week’s edition in the mailbox. This morning’s providence allowed me to pick up the January 1 edition rather than the January 15.

The article begins by telling the story of Brian Palmer, a formerly homeless man, who would sing “The People That Walked in Darkness” with the Street Symphony. The Street Symphony is a group of professional musicians who work with homeless, mentally ill and incarcerated people. They annually perform an abbreviated version of George Frideric Handel’s oratorio, “The Messiah” at the Midnight Mission at 6th and San Pedro, on Skid Row, Los Angeles, CA.

The People That Walked in Darkness” is a bass aria from “The Messiah” named from a line in Isaiah. “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” —Isaiah 9:2 (KJV)

Several years ago I had an opportunity to attend Karaoke Night at Central City Community Church of the Nazarene which meets directly across 6th Street from the Midnight Mission (see the photo above). I’ll not write much specifically about that experience here. I will say that it remains one of the 5 or 6 spiritual touchstones in my life continually returning to mind to anchor my journey and focus my call. (Watch this video about Karaoke Night. It’ll be the best thing you see all day. It might as well have been filmed on the night we visited. The memories of that evening nearly a decade ago all come flooding back to me when I watch it. I recognized many of the people featured.

Ross observes something we should all recognize in ourselves: “Spiritual homilies, whether in the form of venerable religious texts or recovery literature, have a way of seeming corny until a crisis arrives, at which point they take on the force of breaking news. That explains why line after line of “Messiah” felt especially acute on Skid Row.” Our world and the ways we engage with it form us to be cynical. Often, it’s our only defense mechanism. So if we hear something that sounds too sweet or perfect or warm, we often write it off as “corny.” But there are times when the still small voice of actual truth finds its way through the noise of our self-centered and overly protective cynicism. Our hearts melt when exposed to the living and breathing presence of God in a stranger. Epiphany! And it is difficult to unsee what we just saw or un-experience what just changed our lives.

Ross’ entire article is an account of such an epiphany. But it closes with lines that point to what I think to be a common and critical mistake. The writer confesses that “The spell dissolves when you leave the Midnight Mission. The people that walked in darkness are still there. Hard stares greet you as you proceed to your car. This feeling is, if anything, even worse than the one that hits you going in. The entire experience is at once exalting and crushing, luminous and bleak.” What Ross fails to recognize is that the residents of Skid Row aren’t the only ones walking in darkness. Ross seems to assume a return to the vehicle and the real world is a return to the light.

What had actually happened was that Ross stepped out of the darkness of routine, selective attention, and pretensions of enlightenment into the light shining forth at Midnight Mission in the heart of Skid Row. Suddenly Handel’s “Messiah” was transformed from a mere seasonal cliche into a glorious proclamation of the gospel of the Kingdom of God sung by a heavenly choir. It was a light that dismissed the shadows of class and racism and addictions for a moment allowing human beings to see other human beings. And when we see each other, our natural inclination is to lift each other up. We are all in it together. Common good. Common humanity. Love.

I am fully aware of the real and complex problems we much confront in our fallen world. Addictions are debilitating whether they be chemical, physical, material, or emotional. Racism deforms all human beings: the victims and the racists. Darkness blinds us all regardless of our address or lack thereof.

On this day we’ve set aside to remember the work of Martin Luther King, its good to recognize that we are celebrating just such a proclamation of the news of God’s intentions for God’s creation. All of us who walked in darkness saw that great light in Dr. King’s prophetic announcements of justice and peace. And on this day, we can recognize just how easily and quickly we return to the darkness of injustice and inequality. This is a day to remind us of the great light and how quickly we turn away from it.

Vijay Gupta is a violinist with the LA Philharmonic and the founder of Street Symphony. He commented on Ross’ observation about how leaving felt worse than arriving. “We get to leave,” Gupta said. “That’s the source of our shame. The only way to deal with it is to go back.” The reason we celebrate a day like Martin Luther King day is for us to go back and remember. But its more than mere remembering. Its opportunity to see that great light again. And once we see it, we can choose to live in that light. It illuminates everything. It is, in fact, the place we were created to live.

living in exile…a voice in the desert!

It was the title that caught my eye…”What do low-income communities need?” Intriguing. Definitive. Hopeful? Maybe…I clicked the link and read the article in hopes of finding the answer.

After reading it, I’m not sure I necessarily “liked” what I read. But, I still felt compelled to post the link on both Facebook and Twitter. Megan McArdle’s perspective was frankly pretty dark and cynical in some respects. As I read it I found myself torn. There are ideas here that rub my liberal sensibilities the wrong way and others initiate a loud AMEN from those same sensibilities. I also found my more conservative impulses reacting almost exactly opposite my liberal side in precisely those same places.

Ultimately, the writer didn’t answer the question posed in the title. And that was sort of a let down after all of the opposing visceral reactions I experienced while reading the piece. Don’t get me wrong. McArdle’s point is well taken, specifically as she stated it in her last paragraph:

“Public policy can modestly improve the incentives and choice sets that poor people face–and it should do those things. But it cannot remake people into something more to the liking of bourgeois taxpayers.”

And there’s the rub. Just like so many other things in our culture, we want to apply some kind of pharmaceutical remedy to all our problems and make them disappear. We don’t necessarily care how the drug works, just so it takes the pain away. It is in that spirit that we attempt to apply social policies to issues at the whims of elected officials whose main goal is not to solve the issue at hand but to be re-elected. Lets just say the “results” of these politically motivated prescriptions pretty much read like the foul side affects that are hurriedly read following the utopian myth offered by the drug ads we are constantly barraged with on TV (would anyone like to recall the first time you heard “please call your Doctor immediately if you experience an erection lasting for more than 4 hours” with your kids in the room? For a funny digression, check this out.)  All of the efforts from “both sides of the aisle” to solve these problems seem to be more effective at inducing cynicism and resignation that any sort of hope for real solutions.

However the false promise of the article led me to another thought. I was reminded of a passage of scripture we read in our Corner Bible Study at King’s Cross Church a couple of Sundays ago:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
—Isaiah 61:1

It was a prophetic word to a people who had lost everything: their homeland, their culture, their religion. They were returning from exile in a foreign land to rebuild their lives from the ruins of Babylonian conquest. And it was very good news.

I think we often forget that we (all of us) live in exile as well. As I listen to the noise of partisan politics and recognize it’s absolute inability to deliver the good news proclaimed by the ancient prophet, I begin to long for the realm promised by God.  As I become inundated with the call to consumption and materialism to which this season has devolved and recognize the fleeting nature of the “highs” provided by the giving and receiving of stuff, I long for a voice calling out in this wilderness. (With all due respect to my friends who work for Nissan, this particular ad was the last straw for me.  Seriously?…”most wonderful sale of the year“…seriously?)

This Advent season has been a reminder for me to rediscover the true source of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love.

10And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for allthe people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  — Luke 2:10-11

This is what poor communities really need.  Frankly, it’s what all of us need. Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love…generously applied in our day to day lives.  Generously applied to the problems of our day.  The empty words of politicians and the fleeting pleasure of the accumulation of stuff pale in comparison.  It is my prayer for my family and for all of you this season that we all absolutely enjoy our Christmas celebration.  All of it…the giving and receiving of gifts, time with family, the lights, the food, the TV shoes, even the shopping (but that was a bit hard to write).   But I also pray that in all of this busyness and activity that you will “make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  Peace!

…nobody will read this…

(That is an awkward title to this post but I know if I use “HIV” or “AIDS” in the title people will probably not read it…hope you forgive me and continue…)  I was privileged to attended the 15th annual US Conference on AIDS hosted by the National Minority AIDS Council. I attended as a volunteer for Samaritan Ministry which is a faith based ministry to people affected by HIV/AIDS operating out of Central Baptist Church of Bearden (Knoxville, TN). Wayne Smith is the director and has been actively engaged in the fight against HIV/AIDS for many years. He’s also a close friend and my personal guru when it comes to this issue. It was my third time to attend the USCA…first time was in New Orleans 3 or 4 years ago, last year in Orlando and then Chicago this year. (I’m hoping for an invite to Vegas next year!) Each of these gatherings have been formative for me as a person but more specifically as a vocational minister and as a practical theologian.  (“Practical theologian” is not meant to be as pretentious as it sounds.  I think one of the biggest problems of contemporary Christianity is the fact that we have solidified theology into a set of propositions to be debated rather than as lenses through which we understand God in the world. Rather than a minister who knows all the correct theological answers, I aspire to be a practical theologian continually developing my theological vision in everyday life situations.  God is present and active in our world.  God’s followers often fail to see this because we’re too busy debating politics and points of doctrine.  But, I digress…)

This year, two particular things stood out to me at the USCA. First…this was a very hopeful event. (A disclaimer…I’m NOT an expert at what I’m about to write.  This is a layman’s attempt to articulate some of the things I’ve learned.) (please check out the second thing I learned here…)

There have been a lot of advancements in our ability to control the HIV virus once it has been contracted. If we can get an HIV positive person aware of their status (more testing is needed) and then into treatment, their viral load (amount of the virus in their body) can be pushed down and their opportunity to live a healthy life increases greatly.  This is wonderful news for individuals who are HIV positive.

The effectiveness of these drugs on the whole greatly reduces the spread of the virus.  Studies are showing that with the proper use of anti-retroviral drugs, chances of transmitting the disease are reduced as much as 90+%…that is very exciting news.  The effectiveness of these drugs shines a light on how important it is for people to know their HIV status and to get treatment if they are positive.  However, this news is tempered by the sobering fact that nearly 56,000 new people contract HIV in the US each year…a number that has remained fairly constant for the last 10 years.  Another sobering statistic was passed along to me today by another friend of mine working in this field.  20% (1 out of every 5!) of the people who are HIV positive in the United States don’t even know they have the virus.  Simply knowing ones status and getting in treatment not only saves that person’s life but keeps the virus from spreading further.  That is why testing programs are imperative.

One very disturbing bit of irony in all of this is the fact that the “Bible Belt” and the “HIV belt” are one and the same.  40% of the HIV population resides here in the southeastern US and yet funding for prevention is lower in this area. Some think our prudishness in talking about sex is a major contributor to the spread of HIV here in the Bible belt.  With the church’s fear of saying words like “condom” or talking about “sex”, I would tend to agree with that conclusion.  I’m all for abstinence…100%.  But the church is being dangerously irresponsible by not talking more openly about sex.

However, another major factor in the southeast is poverty and access to proper care.  If a person has insurance, most companies cover these meds.  However, for those without adequate medical insurance, the cost of treatment is exorbitant.  For the treatments to effectively manage the virus, these expensive drugs must be taken daily.  I do not know enough to get into the debate for or against the drug companies about these costs (pharmaceutical companies are large, easy targets for stones to be thrown).  One side will say that the drugs are saving lives and new and better drugs require expensive research, hence the cost.  Others will say it’s unacceptable for people to be dying when life saving drugs are available but unaffordable.  Taken together, those two positions represent the truth and we’re going to have to finish this fight together.  We also can’t sit comfortably back and label this disease with our ignorance and our stereotypes.  This is a public health issue. We’ve got to quit fighting each other and figure this out.  We can’t solve the problem via political steel cage death matches.  It’s about access to proper care.  Let’s solve that problem together.

At the very least, it’s vital to keep funding stable for HIV testing, prevention, awareness, and research. Testing can now be done accurately with a simple oral swab…no blood needs to be taken.  Once a person’s status is identified, life saving treatment is available.  Once treated effectively, the chance of transmission is reduced drastically.  Taken as a whole, the amount of virus in our community begins to go toward zero.  The disease is on the run.  We can’t afford to cut funding to these critical areas.  They all work hand in hand in the fight to end this epidemic.  It’s an over-simplification of a very complex problem but if the community viral load is reduced to near zero, the chances of transmission go to near zero and then the end is in sight.

There was a very hopeful thread running through some of the talks and conversations I heard at the conference.  I believe, if we keep our eye on the ball, HIV will be could be history in the next 10 years.  But we all have to work together.  (I’ll write about the second thing I learned tomorrow.  That lesson is something about which I have more expertise.  And it’s VERY troubling for all of us who claim the name of Jesus.)

Homeless

I read an article in the March issue of Harper’s Magazine that I think will be worth your time.  The writer, William T. Vollmann, spends some time with homeless people in the city and provides an interesting look into what I think to be a misunderstood world.  I would urge you to read the article from more of a sociological perspective first rather than putting on your political glasses (regardless of what shade of political glasses you might be sporting).  I’ll grant the obvious left leaning slant of Harper’s…something that might keep some of you from clicking the link below and reading the article.  However, I think this is an interesting (and well written) glimpse into this world.

Homeless in Sacramento: Welcome to the New Tent Cities

How can we find peace?

some thoughts by Thomas Merton (from the book Choosing to Love the World)…

We prescribe for one another remedies that will bring us peace of mind, and we are still devoured by anxiety.  We evolve plans for disarmament and for the peace of nations, and our plans only change the manner and method of aggression.  The rich have everything they want but happiness, and the poor are sacrificed to the unhappiness of the rich.  Dictatorships use their secret police to crush millions under an intolerable burden of lies, injustice and tyranny, and those who still live in democracies have forgotten how to make good use of their liberty.  For liberty is a thing of the spirit, and we are no longer able to live for anything but our bodies.  How can we find peace, true peace, if we forget that we are not machines for making and spending money, but spiritual beings, sons and daughters of the most high God?

I’ll not be able to improve upon that…

…architecture and community/sustainability

Houses of the Future – The Atlantic (November 2009).

curtis-architecture-new-orleans-wide
NEW ORLEANS - AUGUST 24: 1631 Tennessee Street - Photos of New Orleans Houses photographed for Atlantic Monthly on August 24, 2009 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images for Atlantic Monthly)

This is a link to an intriguing article I read on Monday in the November 2009 issue of The Atlantic.  Several things were interesting to me.

In particular are the comments sprinkled throughout the article that pertain to remembering, re-building, nurturing , and sustaining community and the role that is playing in the architecture on the homes being built.  One interesting section describes features of some of the traditional homes of New Orleans…tall ceilings (“allow residents to live below the worst of the summer heat”); shotgun cottages lack hallways (“allowing for efficient cross-ventilation in every room”); transoms (“make the walls porous and keep the air moving”).  Michael Mehaffy, Executive Director of Sustasis, says “What we’re learning is that these traditions are not just fashions.  They’re rooted in the real adaptive evolution of a place.”  Such an observation requires living in a place and listening to its voices.

An observation by Andres Duany, co-founder of the Congress for New Urbanism, was particularly insightful:

“When I originally thought of New Orleans, I was conditioned by the press to think of it as an extremely ill-governed city, full of ill-educated people, with a great deal of crime, a great deal of dirt, a great deal of poverty,” said Duany, who grew up in Cuba. “And when I arrived, I did indeed find it to be all those things. Then one day I was walking down the street and I had this kind of brain thing, and I thought I was in Cuba. Weird! And then I realized at that moment that New Orleans was not an American city, it was a Caribbean city. Once you recalibrate, it becomes the best-governed, cleanest, most efficient, and best-educated city in the Caribbean. New Orleans is actually the Geneva of the Caribbean.  …All the do-goody people attempting to preserve the culture are the same do-gooders who are raising the standards for the building of houses, and are the same do-gooders who are giving people partial mortgages and putting them in debt,” he said. “They have such a profound misunderstanding of the culture of the Caribbean that they’re destroying it. The heart of the tragedy is that New Orleans is not being measured by Caribbean standards. It’s being measured by Minnesota standards.”

As someone who grew up in south Louisiana near New Orleans, this is the first time I’ve heard that description of the city…frankly, it rings true.  Much damage is done to culture, place, community in the name of progress or good intentions.  Duany came by his observations by living in New Orleans and walking the streets, talking to people who love the place.  Brad Pitt, of all people, has bought a home in the city and is an integral part of the “high design” Make It Right development in the lower 9th ward.  Again, grew to love New Orleans, moved there, spends time there and becomes part of the solution.  (from the article, “BRAD PITT FOR MAYOR t-shirts are not uncommon around town.”)

The writer of the article quotes Steve Mouzon speaking to a group of contractors and architects: “The very core of sustainability can be found in a simple question: ‘Can it be loved?'”  Ultimately, that will be hinge of success in the rebuilding of New Orleans.  Wayne Curtis closes his article with, “The past here has much to inform the future, not just for New Orleans, but for an entire country that needs to rethink the way it designs its cities and homes.  New Orleans won’t be rushed—it never is—but the chances are good that whatever results here will be loved.”