Monday, March 31, 2014

"They don't care about us."

These were the words spoken to me by Mr. Harold Brown, a life-long resident of New Orleans.  We were standing on the lawn of his newly-built but not finished and already falling apart house, thanks in no small part to corrupt government practices from local to national levels, to corrupt contractors, and to sleezy family members.  Mr. Brown is 68 years old, losing his vision, and has no where else to go.  Katrina wiped out his livelihood - a fish market business and 10-unit apartment building and after a few years living in Houston in a flop-house (at $75/night) and paying $10 for meals (subsidized by FEMA money that finally ran out), he returned to his house only to find everything inadequate.

The whole story is a tragic nightmare. What is haunting me, however, are the words "they don't care about us."  It is far too easy to align myself with his statement, and to point the finger at politicians and sleeze-bag, greedy contractors and family members. I am sure that, simply because I was standing with Mr. Brown on this sunny, brisk Tuesday, he would not include me in this "they."  But is this really accurate. How much do I really care? Yes, my heart aches, and my blood boils. But is that all?

I don't have easy answers to any of this. I do know that I have to be careful about simply nodding my head and saying "yes they don't care" without taking a deep look at how much I really care as demonstrated by my actions.  I can demand that "they" put more funding into programs, but money was a major part of the corruption as it wound its way through the system with little reaching the ground. I can demand that the corporate exploiters of the region (oil, mostly) clean up their act, but I too like my lights and heat. I know that I can do more to raise awareness, to call on all of us to look around us to see where we might be fooling ourselves as we align with people in these kinds of circumstances.  Even as I attended a Quaker Meeting the Sunday after returning from NOLA, I could not help but notice that, out of 100 people in attendance, the lack of economic and racial diversity is jarring. Is this a true reflection of what it means to care?

In the Book of John, Chapter 9 in the Bible, there is the story of Jesus restoring sight to a blind man.  There is a back-and-forth with the Pharisees about whether it was the blind man or his parents who were the sinners that caused the blindness, or whether Jesus had devilish powers because of his ability to restore sight. Ultimately, what Jesus reminds us is this: it is not a sin to be blind.  The sin is to claim to see.  So, while I can see Mr. Brown's point that "they don't care", I have to be careful not to overlook my own part in this.  It is a blindspot that I might take comfort in, but it is one that will blind me to seeing the hard work, personal commitments and sacrifices we must make to bring justice to these kinds of situations.  It is humbling that it takes the words of a man losing his sight for me to try and open mine.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Fasting or Monetary Incentives: The Extremes of Charity and Justice

This year, as a lenten practice, I am reading a daily reflection about a different saint each day.  This morning, it was about Sharbel Makhluf, a 19th century Lebanese monk who spent the last half of his life as a hermit. He is known for both his fasting and his care for others. He would leave his hermitage routinely to go care for villagers. The prayer suggested for today is "God of our fasting, show us how our hunger unites with those in need of bread, how letting go of life's comforts can aid those lacking necessities for life."  

Then I turned to Dan Pallotta's daily hit from his book "Uncharitable."  Dan is the founder of Pallotta Teamworks, was a pioneer in fundraising via AIDSRides/Cancer Walks, and was an inspiring visionary. I still remember clearly the first time I heard him, in July 1996 on the first day of the Twin Cities-Chicago AIDSRide, challenging everyone that we could end the AIDS pandemic within a decade. I think he was right in the vision, but unfortunately and ironically, there was too much money invested in and to be made from AIDS to allow for the creative innovations to make it happen. 

Today's "hit": "An ambitious reporter puts a sentimental photo of a child with leukemia in the newspaper and asks, 'How can you be so cruel as to want to earn a profit from his situation?' I put up the photos of a million others like him and ask, How can you be so shortsighted as to deny me and a thousand others the monetary incentive it would take to devote our life’s work to helping these children? You have just robbed them of our talents. What if your moral compass is wrong?"  

These two represent the polar ends of the spectrum of the cultural and institutional realities of the social justice/charity/advocacy world. At William Penn House (where we work for beans), we get groups that want us to set up service programs for them but sometimes they have trouble seeing why they should pay us a fee as they are doing charity. I would love to double the Workcamp fee so that WPH could have a cushion, a bit of security and I would be able to perhaps save a bit for the future. And I see many colleagues in the field in much the same boat.  It sometimes feels like because we work in this field, we are expected to live like St. Makhluf.  

On the other hand, I see why people are concerned about the money made in charity work. I see and know people making well over 6 figures (some more around half a million).  They are happy; the donors - often the deep pockets of the Clinton/Gates/Bono realm - are happy. The workers fly in high circles. They are very good at raising money, creating good images, marketing, etc, but are the donors really getting the best bang for the buck? Do people enter these jobs fueled by their passions for the cause, or by the lure of the paycheck? How many dollars are spent in meetings to no end? Even being a part of the DC HIV Prevention Planning Group, a non-paid position, I suspect that we meet to meet, but actually do very little. I'm working on that one. 

It really boils down to the tension between ego and grace. For me, personally, I don't think I could ever live the life of Makhluf, Francis, or countless others. Even in my daily life, I stand in awe at the life of grace of some of the people I know. In one case, this life of having and needing little (and this is with someone who gave up much to do his ministry) is essential.  And yet, I firmly believe that the more one has attachments to things that can be bought with wealth, the more the ego gets fed, and this inevitably is a problem.  Just look at how Dan's quote ends.  He basically is saying that if I don't get paid what I want, it's your fault for robbing people of my gifts. The immorality is yours.  

It's fair enough to do what we can so that people can make a living, and I think it's fair enough to negotiate what an equitable wage is, and what is too much, and through this tension we can get the biggest bang for the buck. To me it boils down to this: fair and decent wages are good - perhaps essential, but getting rich off the backs of the poor and the sick is not.