At age twenty to twenty-one, I took weekend trips with an older student, Al, to help with a small church in a poor section of north St. Louis. My first assignment was as bouncer for Sunday School. Kids around 4-7 years old would come to church bringing their toys—their sad, scary toys. My job while welcoming the kids was to secure objects that might distract during lesson time. Little girls solemnly deposited headless dolls or a single shoe, then darted off to play with friends. Boys often had an excellent stick to check in. “That’s a good stick, I’ll aim to see you get it back at the end,” I assured them. A pre-schooler handed over a steak knife stripped of its wooden handle. Behind him, his little brother turned in another such splinter of steel and rivets. A week or two later they brought spoons only; that we counted as progress in the Spirit.
When I visited the families of this church in their brick row apartments, the kind that were pizza ovens in the summer and well-ventilated in the winter, we ate a lot of cornbread and mashed peas. Their strong trust in God inspires me to this day. "God is good all the time." I was getting more ministry than giving. One family proudly noted that they were “originals”, having lived at this spot "since when it was cows". This was as distinct from the many newcomers they viewed with pity and caution, mostly refugees from Pruitt-Igoe.
In the 1950’s St. Louis built low-income housing about thirty minutes’ walk northwest from where the Gateway Arch would soon stand. Pruitt-Igoe was a concentration of thirty-three 11-story high-rises. Opening to applause from all, by the end of the 1960’s the Pruitt-Igoe complex had become a notorious refuge for misery and drug-dealing. In 1972-1974 the concrete buildings were all demolished.
Academics still are assessing blame for this debacle. A key factor was that even as Pruitt-Igoe was set in concrete, jobs fled. In two decades, center-city population halved. Maintenance of the high-rises stopped because it came from rents from a shrinking population of tenants who by definition had low-income jobs or no jobs. Economic robustness and sustainability of Pruitt-Igoe was BAD: Broken As Designed.
My hosts, originals and newcomers alike, had additional insights. They recalled that the dirt-floor slum communities and rural communities before Pruitt-Igoe at least had strong families and churches. They reminisced to this effect: “If I got in trouble in school, I knew I would get whomped-on, two, three, more times that day. Even before I get home, word flies to my aunty and her neighbor and my momma and my daddy. Kids these days, they got no one to whomp 'em.” Fathers with minimum-wage jobs often could not live with their families in subsidized housing. BAD.
A year after Pruitt-Igoe fell, in the suburbs ten miles to the north a naïve redneck turtle-loving farm boy ventured to disarm six-year-olds and show them Jesus loves them. The projects had been segregated; for example, the Pruitt section was for blacks, the Igoe section for whites. By contrast, this was a racially-mixed congregation. I had some success in building urban bridges. Eventually, though, I returned attention to my home area which had no lack of needs and didn't require five hours of driving. For over forty years I have pondered how the government program achieved the opposite of what it ostensibly sought. How might I have better worked with the people? Should I have stayed? With poignancy I have watched the recent news reports continuing from those people and that place, Ferguson, Missouri.
Utah's Strategy for the Homeless: Give Them Homes
You understand now why I did not jump up and dance. But I read on:
'We call it housing first, employment second,'
said Lloyd Pendleton, director of Utah's
Homeless Task Force. ... In 2005, Utah was
home to 1,932 chronically homeless. By
April 2015, there were only 178.
Giving away homes might work if only because the programs around Salt Lake City have not deployed Pruitt-Igoe-style concentration camps. Instead, Utah dispersed the gift homes, often in the scale of two-unit and four-unit condos. "Employment second" is better than 1960 St. Louis's "what employment?" Utah has local jobs programs. Having a home apparently makes most beneficiaries not lazy, but gives stability so they don't need to desperately cycle through minimum-wage jobs. There appears to be improved counseling and medical care. People also can have severe physical and emotional health needs, outlook needs, education needs, relationship needs, justice needs, and certainly God needs. The governments of Utah have addressed not all needs, but have recognized many kinds of needs for many kinds of people in a somewhat integrated way. So, no dance, but I see cause for a smile.
In recent months I've gotten updated on northern Virginia fragmented social services. As in most other places, food, housing, jobs, medical care, counseling, and other support programs each arose as separate legislation. Consequently, services are fractured in several dimensions: housing for families versus housing for vets; medical funding by federal, state, county, employer, and private means. A needy person visits several offices scattered around the county, fills out lots of forms, is frequently refused but politely redirected elsewhere, and yes, eventually returns to previously-visited offices and forms. I did do a little dance when one fellow I've been helping recently got a Medicaid approval. I resumed my seat when we found that the sole benefit for this 61-year-old bachelor was not the needed medication, hospital procedures, or assisted living facility. Rather, the card gave him access to contraceptives and family planning; useful for some but not for him.
I could gripe, but today's social services are better than former years' poor houses and starvation, thank you Charles Dickens and many lesser-knowns. I don't much lament that believers have handed to the state their personal calling and church calling to give. But there clearly exists a better approach than the current muddle, a better approach that starts with me more than my government.
Then an expert on the law stood up to test Jesus, saying, “Teacher, what must I do to get life forever?”
Jesus said, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
The man answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.” Also, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
Jesus said to him, “Your answer is right. Do this and you will live.”
But the man, wanting to show the importance of his question, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
(Jesus then tells a story you can read in Luke chapter 10. I’m going to repeat what Jesus said about loving my neighbor, while looking back over my shoulder at what Jesus said about loving God.)
Jesus answered, “As a man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, some robbers attacked him. They tore off his clothes, beat him, and left him lying there, almost dead. It happened that a priest was going down that road. When he saw the man, he walked by on the other side. Next, a Levite came there, and after he went over and looked at the man, he walked by on the other side of the road.
Then a Samaritan traveling down the road came to where the hurt man was. When he saw the man, he felt very sorry for him.”
Love God with all your heart.
“The Samaritan went to him, poured olive oil and wine on his wounds, and bandaged them.”
Love God with all your soul.
“Then he put the hurt man on his own donkey and took him to an inn where he cared for him.”
Love God with all your strength.
“The next day, the Samaritan brought out two coins, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of this man. If you spend more money on him, I will pay it back to you when I come again.’”
Love God with all your mind.
Isn’t it interesting that what we may do for our neighbor quite matches what we may do for God?
I don’t have a simple recipe to optimize kindness. On reflection, I’m impressed by how well the story of the Good Samaritan structures the process of doing kindness, a process that in my experience "first does no harm" and in the end is most productive.
The story of the Good Samaritan suggests that with respect to kindness, there are three kinds of people.
Ought there be limits to kindness? How does one prioritize? How does my family, my church fit in? I aim to tell a few more tales and respond to such questions in a later installment.
Consider this concluding clip from Thailand. Do Christians own a monopoly on compassion? Ha! No!
The more important question: does compassion have a monopoly on you?
At The Surge we love doing things together... that includes writing a blog! Here are a few of our main contributing authors:
Our fearless leader, Dwaine is the lead pastor at The Surge. His experience in counter terrorism with the CIA prepared him for ministry and he likes dogs and babies even more than E does.
E (short for Eric Reiss) is the Wingman at The Surge and likes dogs, music, Mexican food, his wife Karen and his little girl Evangeline... not necessarily in that order.