Tonight was the third in our series of gatherings at church to look at what we can do about poverty in Durham. This week’s session was called “Beyond Charity: Addressing Causes and Empowering People.” We heard from three different groups: Circles of Support, which looks to create support teams of four to ten people who commit to helping a family make the transition from homeless to a home; the East Durham Children’s Initiative, which is committed to changing outcomes and expectations for children and families living in a 120-block area of East Durham; and Neighborhood Allies, which focuses on asset based community development. Needless to say, I heard more than I could digest in an hour and a half.
In the final presentation by Camryn and Ernest Smith, a quote went by on one of the Powerpoint slides that grabbed me, even though they didn’t specifically reference it:
The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them. — Albert Einstein
In the free association field that is my mind, the first place I went was to a conversation long, long ago in my youth ministry days. I don’t remember where it was, or to whom I was talking, but I remember what they said: never have a generic repeating event. Don’t fall into the pattern of a Fall Retreat, or Disciple Now, or Youth Camp. Even if it is something that happens every year, give it a specific name, a specific theme. Put dates on the t-shirt. Make sure you know why you are doing it — and make sure it’s for reasons other than “it’s an annual event.”
The second place was an article on editing; again, all I remember is what I read. If you want to learn how to be a good editor of your own work, start by taking out your favorite sentence. Make it work its way back into the piece. Make sure you know that nothing is sacred, that anything can change for the sake of what is best.
After that, I thought, “Here’s what’s wrong with Congress: low, same level thinking.” There do not appear to be even a handful of legislators who are thinking transformationally. They are trying to solve the problems exactly as Einstein said they could not. Thinking about them brought me back to thinking about poverty and that I had heard on the radio about the Dow Jones hitting a record high today. The reason, it seems, is because corporate profits have skyrocketed even as wages for workers have stayed flat. This video, which went viral this week, visualizes it well.
Some time during the course of this week — perhaps leaving my part time retail job at the mall — it struck me how many of the people I depend on to be able to do what I want to do in a day don’t make a living wage. A living wage: one that allows them to actually pay the bills and feed their families and have a secure roof over their heads. In North Carolina, it would be in the neighborhood of twenty dollars an hour. When we go to a restaurant, a shop, the mall, a convenience store, or a dry cleaner, talk to the custodian, hired a landscaper, or take our kids to preschool, we rely on people who work and don’t make enough to live. A couple of legislators and the CEO of Costco are working to raise the minimum wage. One of the arguments is if labor costs go up, companies won’t hire new people. (Insert Einstein quote here.)
Camryn said they asked two questions when they worked with communities who wanted to make life better:
- what would you change?
- what would you be willing to do to make it happen?
She was asking my editing question — or at least that’s how I heard it: am I willing to let go of what makes me comfortable to make life better for everyone?
What I loved about all three presentations tonight was they were not talking about what we can go do to save the poor in our community. They were calling us to relationship, to peership, to common ground. “Poor people,” said Carmyn, “know the keys to their own liberation.” What they need is support, engagement: allies. What they need is for us to listen to Jesus: “I was hungry and you fed me . . . .”
What is happening in Durham gives me hope that we are doing more than this year’s Discussion About What We Need To Do. We have a sense of urgency also, thanks to our governor and legislature, who may be throwing witches in the Eno River to see if they float should things continue along their current trends. Still, I am encouraged because we are working on what is in front of us today, on how we can change things now and for the future; this is not a generic event about fixing the Issue du Jour. This is us — all of us — and here we come.
In these days when the distribution of wealth in our country is unconscionable, here we come. As we watch the Supreme Court prepare to undo the Voting Rights Act, here we come. Even though Congress seems determined to make spending cuts at the expense of those who cannot afford it, here we come. Here. In 2013. Face to face.
Tasha Melvin opened her presentation with a quote from Margaret Mead:
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
I am encouraged because I trust there is not just one small group, but thousands of them around the country — around the world — looking to think larger and deeper, determined not to give into cynicism, and committed to one another.
I saw them tonight.