Social Change the World Needs

This Century’s Great Moral Problem

Sheryl WuDunn calls attention to the powerful positive impact helping a girl get educated can have on a village.  She shares stories of triumph and struggle.  She highlights the injustices that are perpetrated on women and girls. Then she offers opportunities for improvement.

In this blog, I want to focus on the social problems right here at home. While I am writing from the state of Louisiana, in this post I am considering home to be anywhere in the United States of America. Lest we forget, most of the issues we face are minimal as compared to much of the world.  We definitely want to pay attention to the least of these in this whole world.

Here at Home

In our own towns and states, it is in our own best interest to help the people who struggle. Excessive prisons and mass incarceration are a drain on the economy, even though they provide employment in the communities that house them.  Addiction and the underground economy of drug dealing create more violent communities. The stresses from violence ripple throughout our structure, law enforcement gets stretched, trauma units in hospitals are expensive, and the unrelenting stress of feeling unsafe is a health risk for humans. Underemployed single mothers not only do not have enough discretionary income to add to the economic well-being of your town, their teenagers are often up to no good.  Family dysfunction, loneliness and a sense of hopelessness all contribute to mental health issues.

The Common Thread

The common thread of these issues is that they impact women and children disproportionately.  Imprisoned parents mean lonely children. Drug addiction contributes to violence in many ways, including domestic violence.  Dysfunctional families are a factor in mental and behavioral health issues. Unsupervised young people are often detrimental to the community.

What’s That Got to Do With Me?

Everything.

We are our society. We are our government. Remember the Gettysburg address, “of the people for the people and by the people”? It means all of us. Sheryl WuDunn ends this TED talk with two primary reasons we should take on these issues.

Paraphrased, she says, “Once we have our material needs taken care of, one of the only things that can make us happier is contributing to a cause greater than ourselves.”

Call to Action

Privilege and responsibility are Siamese twins.

In addition to contributing to international causes (e.g. Heifer International,  Kiva, Samaritan’s Purse, UMCOR, etc.) how can you find a way to reach out in your own community?

 

Wrong About Addiction?

 

My experience in counseling people who have problems because of using alcohol and other drugs is that healthy social connections are incompatible with continued use.  This Ted talk shifts my personal observation.  His conclusion is that the lack of healthy social connections is the root cause of these issues. I find it a compelling idea.

What would happen if we shifted the enormous amounts of money that we spend on incarceration and law enforcement to job creation, addiction counseling, and housing support?  What if the people who have addiction issues had help with their relationships to keep families together?  Not all people who are chemically or behaviorally dependent are unemployed and homeless.  Yet, we know that continued addictive behaviors are difficult for families. Sometimes the pressures split the family down the middle. What support can we offer to those families?

But to do that, we would need to shift our attitude toward the people who are caught up in negative cycles of substance use, joblessness, and despair.  We would have to see them as people who deserve our help.

What would it take to shift these attitudes?

Top Ten Issues in our Society

    1.  Child welfare systems: Chronic underfunding, overwhelming caseloads and a crying need for services  interfere with our ability to really help those who desperately need intervention and support.  Our system damages the very families it tries to help.
    2.  Addiction recovery: Much of the excessive imprisonment in our country is related to addictions to alcohol and other drugs. Our punitive system doesn’t fund the way out of this cycle.  Do we want it to continue? Or do we deeply believe that some people who are addicted to substances don’t really deserve to be helped?
    3. Homelessness–affordable housing:  When we have many citizens living on the streets, it is an indication of a lack of care in our world.  There are as many reasons for homelessness as there are people who are suffering.  Sometimes the people who are without a roof over their head are working. However, wages can be very low, and inexpensive housing is rare.
    4. Job readiness training:  Many times people do not learn basic job skills in their formal education. Without a caring person to teach the basics, young people falter and have difficulty holding a job.  A cycle of unemployment, disenchantment, and negative behavior will ensue.  We have to find a way for people caught in that negative spiral to find a way out.
    5. Healthcare access: Our current system has made some impact. However, a large segment of people cannot afford to pay the premiums for the insurances that are available. They have no recourse for consistent health care.
    6. Mental health recovery: There are many things that can help people who experience life in a way that does not serve them.  Depression, bipolar disorder, addictions, and schizophrenia all are treatable conditions. Access to help is lacking.  We need to let go of the stigma that surrounds mental health issues and create ways to surround people with the healing power of love.
    7. Immigration issues: How can we address the practical negative impact of people crossing borders and working without documentation?  The impact is not just on our economy, it is that these people often work with none of the protection of legal safety practices.  They are vulnerable to unscrupulous employers who take advantage of the fear associated with their legal status.  This issue is negative all the way around.  The narrative that undocumented aliens must be sent back to the home country is too simplistic.
    8. Educational deficits:  There are schools that are failing to teach people to read and compute basic math.  What can we do to support the school and the students to make absolutely certain that each child becomes literate to the basic skills of survival in the 21st century?
    9. Drug dealing-using culture:  Criminalization of drugs has created a culture of predatory dealers, people wrapped up in addiction and a violent response to life.  How can we enter in and address the factors that contribute to this ongoing issues.
    10. Massive incarceration of people.  Our system of mandatory sentencing, get tough on crime, and zero tolerance coupled with the “War on Drugs” have increased the number of prisoners in our country.  The result is massive expenditure on imprisonment, cutting funding on recovery issues, cutting other programs.  Not to mention that we have put a large portion of a generation of parents behind bars. The price paid by the children and families and communities is tremendous.

It’s disheartening to list all of these huge, interconnected problems. Ugh. Closing my eyes and pretending that these issues have nothing to do with me is so tempting. It would be easy to think that my most pressing concern is the interest rate on my Visa. What I experience day to day in working with the population whom I serve is that these issues are present and have a tremendous impact on the lives of real people in our communities. And I know that what touches your life touches my life. We are all connected.

These issues can be impacted by policy decisions in the government offices. However, the government cannot mandate the heart to love people who experience these challenges. The government cannot meet the soulful needs for respect and hope and the belief that things can change. The greatest need we have in our communities is for people who are not experiencing these issues to stop looking down on people who need help.

What do you think? Are these the biggest domestic problems we face? What direction do you think we need to take?

Restoring the felon 

Demetrius* is my friend’s brother.  He ‘s been released from prison, has been for seven months.  He was serving 5-10 years for possession with intent to distribute in Louisiana.  He served five years, he’s on parole, and he still owes a hefty fine.

Let me tell you about Demetrius.  We call him D, he’s tall and handsome.  He has a quiet sense of humor.  He makes fun of himself a lot, but also teases about the society around him. His niece and nephew adore him.  D has been learning to cook and clean in appreciation for the roof over his head.  The little old widows in the neighborhood absolutely rely on him to help them with heavy lifting, yard work and sometimes just a listening ear.  His daughter was born three months after he went in. He doesn’t hear from his baby mama, but her brother stopped by to tell D that he owes five years of child support and the amount is rising every day.  The man offered an “opportunity” for D, one which would violate his parole.  D declined, and the brother left with a vague promise of negative consequences to D if the child support is not paid.

Release is great news! Yet, he’s so disheartened at not finding a job that my friend isn’t sure how hard he’s still looking. He stays with their sister, and job hunting isn’t really a safe topic for conversation.  Little brother reacts badly to what feels more like judgement than concern. What does a family member do in such a circumstance?  Avoid? Confront? Both have definite hazards.

THE BIG QUESTION

How do we as a community of faith help?

SOME ANSWERS

Hope Restored is in Monroe Louisiana. They are offering a series of classes designed to help people when they regain their freedom.  Things like anger management and parenting.  AA meets in their facility to aid addiction recovery. There are counselors available to people who come in. They also sponsor a recovery house which provides a place to live while women find their way to employment, sobriety and housing.  Their goal is also to sponsor a men’s house. This work is so vital and necessary!!

Prison Fellowship has programs for grassroots ministries to learn more about the difficulties of re-entry and ways to address them.

ROOM FOR MORE

Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country.  Yet, a Google search for ministry’s helping prisoner re-entry provides minimal results.  There is a huge opportunity here! We can make a huge difference not only in the lives of the former inmate, but in the lives of their children and other family members.

I’d love to hear about what ideas you have. Are you working in a ministry addressing this?

*Not a real name

Hope Restored

Hope Restored is a community center originally established by the congregation of Revielle United Methodist Church in Monroe, Louisiana. The church is served by Rev. Marcelle Crow, a dynamic leader with a heart for people.

Marcelle says that when she was appointed to Reveille she prayed, “Lord, send the people that nobody else wants here to Reveille.” Her congregation is largely poor, often struggling, and wide open to sharing the love of Christ with each other. In addition, they actively seek to love their neighbor. On Sundays they go out to feed people who live with no roof and share a community meal. It may be something simple, but it is always flavored with love and grace.  The greatest thing that is offered is hope.  Hope that people care; hope that God’s love is real; hope that they are worthy. It’s a powerful ministry.

Feeding the hungry and listening to their needs planted seeds for the ministries which have blossomed from their roots in simple service.

ADDRESSING THE NEEDS

The Hope Restored Community Center provides classes which people who are struggling need. Things like financial management, parenting skills, and anger management are offered in a series.  In addition, AA meets there. Recently they have partnered with another agency, Family Plus, to provide free or low-cost counseling to people who need it. They have set aside space for offices

Hope Restored has expanded its services. Now housing, job training, and support are provided for women who have been in prison before. Addictions, educational deficits and simple life management skills are all addressed. It is a loving environment that offers acceptance, love and true hope to women who truly need it. They are seeking to expand and provide a men’s shelter also.

CHALLENGES FOR REVEILLE UMC

In the floods in early March, Reveille UMC was under water. It was sad to help muck out this building which had such life in it. The annual conference of The United Methodist Church had another facility available, and the congregation simply moved there. However, it is not as close to the neighborhood where many of the participants live. It will be interesting to see and participate in the congregational renewal and enhanced purposefulness that are likely to be the fruits of this disaster.

Agencies like this are the ones we like to feature in this project.  People are pooling their resources in order to offer genuine assistance to people who are suffering. This is exactly what we would like to encourage and support.  Please let us know of other ministries, agencies or entities in North Louisiana that we might share a story about.

Purpose and Super Bowl

 

What’s Our Purpose?

Yesterday was the Super Bowl. As a pastor, I recognize that it is the High Holy Day of our current national religion. Media is absolutely over-run with information about the game. Millions of dollars are spent on the advertising and production. As far as I can tell, Capitalism is the religion of this country. I confess, I did not participate in the service. I stand outside of the doors of the cathedral and try to discern what is going on in there. Thus, my view is admittedly skewed.

Like any other religious service, the Super Bowl has rituals. The singing of the National Anthem by some edgy performer. (I must say, Lady Gaga has a fabulous voice. She did a great job this year! I did play the video.)

There are time honored traditions. People were disappointed this year apparently because they did not get to see the Budweiser Clydesdales. (Just as in any other institution, change is met with resistance). On Facebook, there were many comments that the quality of the commercials was not what the community expected. People are invested in the outcome of the service, but it still plays a second fiddle to the worship of excess and greed that are the focus. The worship extends to the grit and work of the players, but really, they are often dehumanized in this process. People who have never lifted a weight or run a mile will criticize a player’s performance. When we step back and ask what it all means, some disturbing theories arise.

I don’t really think that football is evil. But, I do believe our national obsession with this game might be.

Who are we really?

We like to believe that our country was founded on the principles of freedom of religion and a system of government that was “of the people, for the people and by the people”. Yet, we have abdicated the “the people” part of our government. And, if we look closely, our country’s was founded on land-grabbing and slavery. Human misery and disdain for the latest wave of immigrants have been part of our story from the beginning. Don’t you think it’s time we own it, confess it, and figure out how to make it right?

I have lost faith that our government can be effective “for the people”. Mostly because it is no longer operating “of the people and by the people”. Government may be for some of the people, but there are large groups of people who are left out or damaged by government policy and procedure.

What I see when I really look closely at the children I serve, I see government entities that do the best they can to rescue children but end up hurting them anew. I see government policies that make no sense in the context of human families.

For instance, how can you require an addicted mother to get treatment and make no effort to help her with transportation, or child care for the children you are trying to preserve the family to care for? How is it we incarcerate parents and throw their children in foster care and not make huge efforts to keep the parent and child connected? How cruel is that?

What are we going to do about it?

There are a million and one things we can do. None of us can do everything. Each of us can do something. That’s why I’m writing. I’m also producing a podcast to feature people whose lives have been changed by other people stepping up. I also feature volunteers to help us with forming the mindset to be able to help. And, I interview the CEO/Director to get guidance on how these helping entities spring up and what attitudes help us. I want to encourage us all to think about what it is to be a human and what purpose we can serve.

Politics: Poverty, child welfare, addiction, education, oh my!

Why Politics Can’t Do It

It’s an election year. Woo hoo. We have a bunch of people telling us what we want to hear. Whether it is a message that poor people really need to just pull themselves up by their bootstraps or that rich folks need to kick in more money, the problems are never really ours.

The Problems are Ours.

We are on this planet to help each other out. Our neighbor, whether in our community or on the other side of the world, deserves our help. As much as we deserve theirs.

If you think you don’t take help from the government, think again. You drive on paved roads. Your food is affordable because of subsidies to farmers. Did you or your children ever have a student loan? Government subsidy. Police and fire departments are operated by government entities. National, state and local parks are all government run. That’s what keeps them accessible to you and me. Because we know that if private people own these beautiful sanctuaries, they don’t necessarily want to share them with the rabble, you and me. Our mortgages are often government subsidized. The list goes on and on. We utterly depend on the government in so many ways that we are blind to it.

Responsibility

Somewhere along the line, we the people decided to abdicate our responsibility to our neighbor. It may have begun during the depression, when people were simply unable to help each other. We put government systems in place to keep people from falling through the cracks. Then, since the systems were there we thought that we had no more responsibility. It was no longer us who needed to go alongside the unwed mother and help her with the million and one decisions that must be made in raising a child. We failed to recognize that the elderly and the young are vulnerable populations and if their biological family can’t help them, then we need to step up. It became simpler to just arrest people who turn to drugs and alcohol in the despair of their lives.

The Truth

The truth is, the government makes a really lousy parent. The system doesn’t work for the human beings that it is meant to serve. Foster care truly does help some youth. However, there are plenty that are damaged again and again through moving from placement to placement. What our society needs is strong family units. How can we go alongside families and help them to be stronger? Especially when they don’t seem to want our help? How do we protect children from neglectful and abusive parents PLUS help the family get stronger? How do we support foster families? How do we intervene in the drug culture? How do we turn around the high imprisonment rate in this country? What about education? Is there a way we can help young people learn to read and to do simple math?

The Solutions

This is just the slightest glimpse at the magnitude of our societal woes. The truth is, overwhelm is the only appropriate initial response. None of us can do everything. All of us can do something. What’s your passion? Literacy? How about finding one four year old and help them to learn to love books. Is it hunger? Help a poor neighborhood find a spot and plant a community garden. Maybe you have a passion for abused and neglected teenagers. What about becoming a foster parent? Too much commitment? How about a mentor at a Boys and Girls Club? Tell me, what’s your passion? How would you like to add meaning to your one precious life that you’ve been given?

Poverty, the brain, and child well being

Poverty and the brain

008A researcher in Philadelphia, Martha Farah,  has been studying how living with a low SES (socio economic status), or living in poverty can hurt people’s brain capacity.  The study is significant because it puts a different light on what is often perceived as a lack of self motivation.  When we begin to understand the different ways that being poor hurts men, women, and their children then we are more likely see them as worthy of helping.

Child Well Being effects of poverty

When children are raised in poor homes, they are not spoken to as much as children in higher income homes. What language they hear has a smaller group of words used and the sentences are simpler.  Parents struggling to make ends meet spend less time focused on their child’s cognitive development.

In another article Eric Jensen pointed out that children in more affluent homes have more books in the home, and low SES parents are less likely to read to the children in the home.  These factors affect vocabulary and reading readiness once the child arrives at school.

Poverty and stress

According to Farah, some of the factors of living in poor neighborhoods are exposure to violence, crowding and other social ills. When the parents are under a lot of stress, they are less affectionate and demonstrate less patience with their children. Jensen’s article points out many different effects of stressed parenting including a greater amount of time the television is on plus less monitoring by parents.  Children of poverty are more likely to go into foster care or suffer some neglect.  They are often from single parent homes.

Where is the hope?

Jensen’s article is all about hope. Brains are flexible and can be trained. It takes intention and consistency to shape a brain into a healthy response to life.  A school which chooses to focus on hope and speaks hope into a child’s life may have a tremendous impact.  There are specific strategies that can be used. But, he emphasizes that it is the will of the staff that make the strategies work.

What’s our role?

How can we as citizens help to encourage our schools to help children of poverty develop their brains more?

What would happen if your church decided that every three and four year old within five miles of your church had three books and one adult who read with them once a week?  Is that possible?  (Most of us do have pockets of poverty within five miles of our church.)

What would happen if five volunteers from your church went and encouraged and celebrated the first graders at your nearest under-performing elementary school at least once a month? Is that possible?

What ideas do you have?