Monday, October 11, 2010

What I think about on Columbus Day

I don't usually think about Christopher Columbus on Columbus Day. On Columbus Day in 1992 in South Bend, Indiana - a little boy named Columbus Coleman was shot and killed. I tell you that story to tell you a story about what I learned about being a pastor out of the death of 7 year old Columbus.

Two young men were running through the neighborhood. They were shooting at each other. They missed. Columbus Coleman was playing in his grandmother's front yard. It was the middle of the afternoon.

The next evening there was a community meeting at Broadway Christian Parish, in the sanctuary. Columbus was killed just two blocks away. The sanctuary was packed. It was standing room only. And it was painful. The police chief got up and said, "I'm afraid to sit in my police car in this neighborhood." The Mayor had said in the paper that morning "he [Columbus] was in the wrong place at the wrong time." Really? His grandmother's front yard in mid-afternoon? It seems like the two young men shooting at each other were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But I didn't only learn that night what not to say. People expressed fierce anger. People expressed grief and sadness. And for the first two hours it was pretty unproductive. But then the television cameras left. Then the conversation really happened - as people embraced around the room and stopped yelling at each other.

A parent came to see me and told me that she was concerned about trouble that her son was starting to get into and wondered whether the church could give him a job in the summer. But that's another story.

This is a story of what ministry looks like. It is a story of people showing care for one another. It is a story of people coming together and deciding to try and take some action so that their community would be safer and healthier for everyone. That was 18 years ago.

Here is what I learned from that. We could have done better. We could have been wiser. We could have been more trusting and open to God's grace. Really.

I learned some things that evening. The neighborhood organization got re-started. Kick started you might say. It lasted for several years. But it found itself easily co-opted by the efforts that the city officials thought would be a good idea rather than what the citizens and neighbors of that community wanted to do. There's been a lot of brick and mortar work in that neighborhood. Real infrastructure improvement. There's a fire station now. A park that had been a refuge mainly for people who were dealing and using drugs was replaced (nearby) with a park with the newest and best equipment. A new boys and girls club replaced the old one that consisted of four concrete walls and no windows. New houses were put up - both small condos for low - income folks and nicer large homes for middle class folks. The YWCA put its gleaming new building and programs in that neighborhood. The fire department put its newest station in that neighborhood. The new juvenile detention center was built in the neighborhood. All this in the 10 years following Columbus Coleman's death.

But here's the thing - I can name for you way too many of the young and old who have died in that neighborhood and even in that new park since those improvements were made to the community. Every year that the congregation has done it's annual Stations of the Cross Walk there are always murders to observe on the walk. The improvements weren't bad. It's simply that city officials and the rest of us mistook brick and mortar work for people work. Or as an old Pentecostal minister would say, Rev. Doris Danner - who laid hands on me at my ordination - "we're always putting the cart of materialism before the horse of the spirit."

One of the things that I love about John Wesley -- and that I'm challenged by -- is the way in which he approached everything from health to economy to education to theology. He was seemingly unintimidated by any of these areas. He would experiment to see what would work and what wouldn't work. You can see that even in the formation of his class meetings and societies.

One of the things I despair of most among my United Methodist sisters and brothers (okay, mainly among my brothers) is that we seem a lot more willing to engage on issues of theology than on issues of practice. For Wesley there didn't seem to me to be an either/or between works of piety and works of mercy. We spend a lot of time (in meetings, at annual conference, and even on blogs) debating the nuances of theology, but very, very little debating the effectiveness of our works of mercy - and developing innovative new efforts and then learning from them.

So - as I have reflected on what happened in the wake of the death of Columbus Coleman I find myself, every year on Columbus Day, challenged to see the new world that is before me. It's not really a new world - it's the new eyes I have to see it with - or attempt to see it with. That is to say - Gospel Eyes.

I want to work with other Christians, other citizens, and other neighbors, to engage us to put as much effort, money, and material - behind investing in the actual gifts of the Spirit in the lives of people, the people of our neighborhoods - who are treated as empty vessels, as we put in the bricks and mortar and new playgrounds that make up the communities of which our congregations are apart.

Right now the development corporation in the neighborhood around Broadway in Indianapolis is working on "pocket parks." I need to be wise and thoughtful about how I talk with the folks I know involved with that effort to encourage and turn their eyes to an investment in the neighbors even more than an investment in the parks (which wouldn't leave out the parks from happening - it's just that there is much more investment spent on the parks).

There is too much of the "if you build it they will come" mentality at work I am afraid. We don't like complexity these days. In fact, I have a letter from the editor of the Indianapolis Star telling me that the issue of poverty is too complex an issue for them to take on. I just don't think that's true. And I think one good gift we can give as Christians is to challenge that view.

I call out Columbus Coleman's name and remember him every year - because it is easy to forget the toll across the years of lives many more than necessary. And we Christians in our neighborhoods can make a difference. If we would only pray and get together with our neighbors - and act like people of faith who see the presence and power of God alive, not in the brick and mortar, but in the lives of the people around us.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Bill Stanczykiewicz is Wrong

In Monday's Indianapolis Star the head of the Indiana Youth Institute Bill Stanczykiewicz wrote an article that got my blood boiling a little. I really don't know Mr. Stanczykiewicz. I met him once at an event that I was leading for a United Way in Anderson, Indiana. I do read his articles and I'm concerned that he is a cheerleader for a way of doing things that does not benefit the people it is purported to serve. I stayed up late on Tuesday night and worked up a reply which I sent to the Indianapolis Star. I doubt that they will use it. So, I will copy it here in my blog so that it will at least be "out there."

Bill Stanczykiewicz is wrong. He is not just wrong, but dangerously wrong. Perhaps he is right that “more opportunity today can mean less poverty in the future.” But that is unlikely as well. It isn’t “opportunity” that is the issue - it is income. He uses all the right buzz words to perhaps persuade someone that he may be right: “Education”, “opportunity”, “tutoring”, etc. How can you argue with all of these things? But none of his prescriptions or buzz words matter more than increased income. Not only academia, but also the Indianapolis Star has reported that income is the most important determinant in educational achievement. Doesn’t Mr. Stanczykiewicz think that at least one of the answers might be to find ways to increase income? The statistics he quotes from Haskins and Sawhill’s book are the type of statistics that can add more confusion rather than clarity to a conversation. And while these issues are complex a little common sense couldn’t hurt.

We have made the poor an industry that has supported people like Mr. Stanczykiewicz with nice salaries while little is done to directly increase the income of people who need it most. The energies spent on pimping poverty must quickly ebb to make way for a flow of innovation, collaboration and investment in people, not programs, to end poverty.

Stanczykiewicz may be right when he says that “growing up poor often means believing that success is for someone else...” The problem is that his solutions are more of the same. Haven’t the efforts over the last 50 years (and longer) taught us, at least, that the efforts we have made to “strike down poverty” haven’t worked? Then why do we keep on trying the same things and have the same people in charge of doing those things? Why I think that what he is saying is so dangerous is that we will continue to do these same things that haven’t worked and watch the number of young people and their families in poverty continue to rise.

The problem with the philosophy behind “Jobs for America’s Graduates” is that it does not take into account the failed model of building upon deficits rather than building upon assets. Any parent would understand this. We would never begin each day with our child by asking that child “so what’s wrong with you today?” But that’s how programs like these begin. Like good parents we could start with these young people and their families by asking - how do we build up what is best? Instead we spend our time poking around for every potential lack in their life. It’s a bad model for success in your home and it’s a bad model of success in our society.

When Julie Puttmann says “Our students realize for the first time they can make it” - I challenge her to name those students and then to talk with their parents and see if that is really true. I’ve lived and worked in low income communities most of my life and I can tell you that I’ve never met a person who “realized for the first time that they can make it” when they were in high school. Most young people have realized that from a very early age. Then they have their hopes dashed - not by their parents - but by a system and a society that tries to tell them that now thanks to this program or that one they can have hope for the first time. These programs aren’t bad things. They make the people who run them feel good. And they help a few people beat the odds. What our society could really find useful is something though that changes the odds for everyone. And for that we need innovation a lot more than we need programs.

Actually the 21st Century Scholars Program has modeled this for us. Over the last 8 years they have shown, by investing in the parents of the young people in their program, that a different way to approach poverty is by investing in the very people who the program is meant to serve and putting the actual working of it in the hands of the parents of young people in the program.

We need every part of the city and state challenging themselves to build on the gifts, dreams, talents, and passions of our young people AND their families. We need religious communities to start paying attention not only to “good works” but work that has good results. We need businesses that invest in our young, not by tutoring them - but by listening to them and investing in their good gifts. But what we need most of all is for each one of us to begin to recognize and celebrate the giftedness of our most marginalized citizens (liberals and conservatives are equally negligent on this) if for no other reason than this - it might actually work (and we have plenty of evidence that the other way doesn’t work). We see that evidence on the front page of our paper every day.

Rev. Michael Mather

Pastor, Broadway United Methodist Church

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Stunning - Just Stunning (Maybe not)

I found myself stunned in the wake of the news that has been building up over the last several weeks of several young men who have committed suicide in the wake of anti-gay bullying. I'm not stunned that young men have committed suicide. I'm not stunned that other young people have been bullying them about their sexuality. What I'm stunned by is that I read on a fairly regular basis some Church Blogs - that is, Blogs by people serving in or a part of congregations (many of them United Methodist). And not one of those blogs has mentioned these suicides - but many of them have commented on the decision by Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, DC to "come out" (so to speak) and speak a word to the larger United Methodist Church that they will be a place where gay and lesbian marriages can and will be celebrated and that they will support their clergy who choose to celebrate these marriages inside and outside the church.

I can understand that there are different opinions with the larger society and even the Church on this issue. What I find impossible to understand - truly impossible - is how there can be so much more energy about (and in many cases against - in some cases in disparaging and graphic terms) people celebrating the love between two consenting adults than there can be about the bullying that has gone on (often fed by the theology and practice and teachings of the Church) toward young people struggling to come to terms with who they are in a culture that still makes little room, but to condemn - that has at the least has not been helpful to creating a climate where young people who are gay are treated with respect and at the worst played an all too active role in the suicides of these young people.

It makes me grateful that I know young people grow up at Broadway and that if and when they learn that they are gay, they know that they are beloved children of God and that they are valued for who they are and for what they have to give to the world as a human being and as a follower of Jesus Christ. I love it that parents whose children have "come out" to them think that it has been made possible because they see gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered people being leaders of our church. It challenges me to continue to find ways in which we can keep our eyes open to young people around us who are struggling with bullying and the effects of a larger culture (including Christianity) that seems to have a lot more words for condemnation than we have for truly seeking, welcoming and valuing our sisters and brothers who are in pain, and who our world would be poorer without.

So, I am stunned, saddened, and more than a little angry this morning. Yes, by all means let's get our outrage and discomfort out in the open about people who love each other and are faithful to each other and care so much about marriage that they are willing to break the law in order to be married. And let's keep our mouths shut about those who die as they cannot seem to find a safe haven in the world we have helped create.