Friday, March 2, 2012

Speaking together…

Whoa! What an incredible event I witnessed! I refer, you may expect, to the Community Conversation on Local Poverty at IOCP last Monday. Representatives from 15 local faith communities (6 from PCCC), the public schools, area businesses and neighborhood families gathered to learn about and discuss the realities of suburban poverty. As the evening’s emcee, I spoke a bit myself, gave a couple shout outs to our church, made predictably cheesy jokes, and otherwise enjoyed this unique moment of people coming together.

As many of you might also feel, I’ve grown increasingly dissatisfied with the current tone of public conversations. Nastiness seems celebrated. People engage in what passes these days as “dialogue” not to gain insight or bridge differences, but as puerile entertainment or an excuse to offload stress and anger onto others. Perhaps, given the recent fragility of family finances and public economies, some of that behavior makes sense. But just because you understand something, doesn’t make it right. Thus, I believe we all- but particularly us Disciples of Christ, who claim “unity” as our polar star, our deepest desire, our primary mission- have a responsibility to reject the accusations, demagoguery and divisions happening about us, rising above to love our neighbors, embrace- even learn from- those who think differently.

Which, again, is much of what excited me about a room packed- 150+ participants!- with diverse people, all gathered for the sake of the poor and vulnerable. The tenor of the discussion was gracious and seeking. Presenters shared devastating statistics about poverty’s rise in suburban neighborhoods, but folk didn’t respond with blame or vicious attacks. After hearing stories of local families suffering mental health debilitations, employment loss, limited access to expensive child care, etc., people seemed genuinely empathetic, stirred to do more, and at the very least appreciated the problem’s complexity without oversimplifying or closing eyes and ears. For that alone, I imagine Jesus smiled.

And the greater good news transcends this one conversation. Yes, we acknowledged that poverty’s here, in our midst. It’s hard and it’s big and it’s our problem to solve. But the ultimate goal of such education is to catalyze action. And, fortunately, this community has long history in acting together to help others. The presenters, for instance, shared the story of a single mother- we’ll call her Tina- who lost her job, then her house, and so slept with her two young children on a friend’s couch. Within a few weeks, though, they hinted Tina was overstaying her welcome. When she walked into IOCP, therefore, the ‘presenting symptoms’ were numerous. Yet their caseworkers connected her with state and county services, found the kids scholarships for quality preschool, helped her write her first resume, get a job and apartment security deposit. She’s not out of the words, but Tina’s on her way.

The point being, of course, is that this community- You!- made this possible. By volunteering at the foodshelf that augmented the family’s food stamps, by supporting IOCP with dollars and prayers. Now that they’re in a new building, and so able to allow poor families a choice of groceries (rather than give only pre-packed boxes), these clients can be more strategic in what they bring home, which means spending less at Cub Foods, and more on medicines or child care. Caseworkers tell me that this simple fact has meant the world for hundreds of poor folk. Plus, their new thrift store has attracted more volunteers and raised more money for other services than expected, even distributed thousands of dollars in gift cards to clients that IOCP serves. If all of this sounds like a commercial for IOCP, forgive me. It’s just that I’m all too aware, after this recent conversation, that any such work happening in our backyard happens because we care enough to work together.

So may that spirit of unity continue. May we never forget our neighbors in need. And may we all renew a personal commitment to learning more, talking more, working more, together.

Grace and Peace,


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