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The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori: Addressing the Needs of the Poor

June 17, 2011

Episcopal City Missions
Boston, Massachusetts
7 June 2011
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church

Jesus may have said that we will always have the poor with us, but he himself made the poor a central part of his own work. He spent much of his public ministry feeding, healing, and teaching the crowds who followed him. Those crowds were almost certainly the homeless or landless, who had little opportunity for economic stability or what today we would call food security. He challenged both political and religious governments about the injustices of taxation policy and realities that made the rich richer and the poor poorer. The last presidential election was not the first time somebody figured out that Jesus was a community organizer.

At their best, communities of Christians have served the poor by focusing on the same basic issues of food, healing, housing, education, employment, and the structural injustices that keep people in poverty. Those basic human needs and rights are no different today than they were in the 1st century CE, and the lack of a productive connection to land is still a central issue in poverty.

That work grows out of the cosmic dream of a healed world - shalom or the reign of God - a society in which no one goes hungry, and indeed everyone has enough for a feast, where premature death is largely unknown and illness is answered with healing, in which the structural injustices have been remedied so there are no impulses to war, and all are free to live in peace. We live in hope for a world redeemed into that reality, and we work at transformation because we are a very long way indeed from seeing it come to fruition.

Transformation begins with what Nelle Morton called "hearing people into speech." Speech is creative, beginning with the divine version in Genesis' first creation story, where God speaks each part of the cosmos into existence: "God said, ‘let there be light'... and God said, ‘let the waters be gathered together, and let the dry land appear,' and God said, ‘let the earth put forth vegetation,' - and speech becomes reality. Morton's act of hearing is like the story of creation - a space, and a receptive environment in which speech can emerge. The act of voicing one's lament or joy is creative, and the art of hearing others into speech underlies community organizing. When the difference between current reality and that cosmic dream can be named, transformation has begun.

Some remarkable work of transformation is ongoing in cities and communities around the world. When I served in Nevada, I had the opportunity to visit Kenya as we sought to build mission partnerships with three dioceses there. It was my first real taste of significant city organizing. A number of church-related groups were working in Nairobi's biggest slum, Kibera. Kibera began as returning soldiers were given plots after the First World War. The settlement was later deemed illegal by the post-independence Kenyan government.

The work of listening in Kibera had elicited a number of needs that were being addressed through asset based community development - looking at the gifts already present and how they might be linked with identified needs for healing. Latrines were a big issue, as well as education for children and basic literacy for adults. Women needed employment. Community members and external partners were organized to pool resources to develop water supplies, build latrines, form micro lending societies, and begin basic primary schools and literacy programs. Small changes offered hope, and greater willingness and ability to engage governmental bodies or foreign grantors. Kibera is still there, but marginal improvements in quality of life are emerging.

I want to offer what is perhaps a surprising contrast to a slum occupied by hundreds of thousands of people. Native American reservations in North America have many of the same challenges as Kibera - lack of clean water and sanitation, lack of access to education, a generalized hopelessness too often expressed in suicide, lack of employment and access to capital. The issues are almost all related to the dispossession of native lands. A new partnership between our Native Ministry network and White Bison has begun to address the listening process, particularly by encouraging a culturally appropriate approach to sobriety. It's called wellbriety, and encourages spiritual, emotional, cultural, and physical healing. Addiction of all kinds stifles creative speech - a reality that organizers in other contexts are also well aware of.

There are other noteworthy realities in our experience in Native communities - the First Nations Kitchen at All Saints in St. Paul, Minnesota offers urban Indians a meal and a community gathering on Sundays. The menu features traditional foods: buffalo, wild rice, green beans, corn bread and a traditional dessert made from local berries, and addresses wellness and healing at several levels.

In several instances the Church has aided particular tribes in regaining land, establishing reservations, or adding to their land base. For a culture in which connection to the earth is so spiritually central, establishing a fund of land is akin to healing a chronically open wound. That base of land has permitted economic development, building homes for tribal members, raising and harvesting traditional foods, including buffalo, and establishing or recovering spiritually significant sites for religious observance. Land is the basis of a healed city, whether the population is in the millions or dozens.

Shelter
Land and housing are also central to healed cities in many other environments and contexts. St. Paul's Church in Savannah has undertaken to redevelop an entire block as affordable housing, the result of listening to and partnering with those whose housing is woefully inadequate. Similar work is going on in the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast. We visited a homeowner in Galveston early this year, one of many whose homes had been gutted and were being renewed after hurricane Ike. When people have dignified housing, lives and cities begin to be transformed.

We are all familiar with more conventional approaches to emergent housing needs - shelters for the homeless, transitional housing, including operations like Family Promise that provide holistic support for leaving homelessness, and Habitat for Humanity and similar partnerships for construction of homes. Some very creative responses are being made to homelessness as a result of domestic violence - St. James Family Center in Cathlamet, Washington took over management of the county shelter as a result of its work with children and parents. The Diocese of Fond du Lac offered the bishop's former residence to that city's women's shelter; and several families and single women are now housed within its elegant walls. In New Zealand, the Anglican Church partners specifically around domestic violence in Maori communities in He Waka Tapu. The phrase means sacred vessel, remembering the canoes that brought the Maori to the land of the long white cloud. He Waka Tapu provides counseling, programs to end violence, and housing, all in an integrated approach to every aspect of health: mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, family, and community.

St. Edmund's, Chicago has worked tirelessly to build and renovate more than 500 housing units at a cost of over $500 million. They have also helped develop a 450 student charter school to serve students through 8th grade in that Washington Park area. A church can have major impact on a city by dreaming big and finding appropriate partners.

There is another housing opportunity floating around that I do not believe has been engaged by The Episcopal Church. Co-housing is essentially an intentional community in which a dozen to several dozen households collaborate. They share common facilities and usually design the housing in a way that accentuates community, building homes that face inward, toward each other, around a shared green space, park, or gathering space. Residents share chores and decision-making, and some meals. Some communities are structured in intentionally diverse ways, including affordable housing. Others include an expectation that aging members will be able to remain in place with the assistance of other community members. This is a natural laboratory for Christian community, where members could work intentionally to break down boundaries and reconcile the world, one household at a time.

There is another often ignored need of those without adequate housing - the ability to join with others in a sacred space or circle. I visited a congregation in Kansas City, Kansas a while ago, and the rector told me that a frequent unanswered request from the people living under the bridge was, "pray with us." Parishioners at St. Michael and All Angels in the aptly named city of Mission are doing just that - taking the needed accoutrements and going to gather with those without a permanent home, in order to find Jesus in the midst of those who gather. Their worship is followed by a community meal. Ecclesia Common Cathedral does the same thing here in this city. That is a profound witness, particularly to the more comfortable passing by. How can any of us walk by in peace when we meet this community gathered to pray? I wonder what would happen if their worship site moved to the steps of the State House. Advocacy for the homeless might be a bit more impassioned.

Food
The members of cohousing communities generally commit to sharing several meals a week. Communities of faith also serve the communities around them in directed ways - offering soup kitchens to the hungry or sit down meals to all comers, feeding the stomach and the soul, and breaking down some of the boundaries between the more obviously poor and those who don't wonder where the next meal will be found.

Congregations are increasingly looking to food production and providing healthier foods in the midst of food deserts. More and more gardens are being started on back lots or grass converted to productive gardens that invite the larger community to share in their produce. Almost any congregation has space to produce some food, whether in a greenhouse or by cultivating a broad expanse of lawn. A congregation in Smyrna, Tennessee that had undergone a split was revitalized by the arrival of a large group of Karen (Burmese) refugees. Farmers in their native land, they were looking for a place to worship and discovered a small Anglo congregation with 20 acres of bottom land whose highest use was thought to be softball fields. It was actually rich farm land, and is now covered with truck gardens producing Asian vegetables that are subscribed as they're planted. Other congregations are looking to improve diets by sponsoring farmers' markets in their parking lots and parish halls, or facilitating the work of community supported agriculture. Another significant food need is being addressed as congregations provide schoolchildren with backpacks filled with enough food for a weekend. The possible responses are myriad - all of them begin with listening to the need in the larger community.

Education
Teaching was the other great focus of Jesus' ministry with the anawim, the little ones, the poor and marginalized of first century Palestine. Whenever crowds gathered, he taught. It seems that a fair bit of it had to do with God's dream: ‘the kingdom of God,' he said, ‘is among you and within you and around you.' "Let those with ears to hear, hear." After food and shelter, teaching has been one of the most basic ways that the Christian community has served and empowered God's people.

The educational work of a couple of revolutionary schools around here is a good example of what's possible. Epiphany School in Dorchester and Esperanza Academy are both working to produce community leaders. That is a long term strategy for social change, as new generations are equipped as change agents (leaders). Both schools enlist families and community members, and invest significant social service inputs in a highly focused educational intervention. Epiphany School admits 5th grade students from the lowest performing quintile of the public school population, invites them into an education program requiring major commitment 12 hours a day, 11 months of the year and graduates confident and dignified 8th grade leaders, performing at 10th or 11th grade level. Esperanza does similar work with middle school girls.

Teaching is a central way of welcoming the stranger, particularly the immigrant. English classes give refugees the tools they need to navigate a strange society. Other needs are served as well, and foreigners take root in a strange land. In Buffalo, the area of the city which has welcomed resettled refugees for a number of years has been so transformed that there are intentional plans to invite refugees into another challenged area of the city. As former strangers begin to own a new neighborhood, like the Israelites taking possession of the promised land, the desert blooms - houses and businesses are cared for, violence recedes, and the streets are made safe enough for children to play in while their elders rest on benches, watching over them. That is a vision of the peaceable kingdom.

Listening to the aspirations in urban communities across the church has produced a network of bilingual kindergartens in the Diocese of Taiwan, serving children of all faith backgrounds and none. Similar organizing work has led to guarderias or nurseries for infants and toddlers in Quito, preschools in the barrios of the Dominican Republic, and more than 250 schools for children of all ages throughout the Diocese of Haiti. I've had several pleading letters from a young person in the Midwest who wants an Episcopal college started near him. The Diocese of Jerusalem operates schools which educate Muslim and Christian children together, developing peace-making leaders who understand the other community as made in the image of God.

Sometimes the educational dreams are about the ability to pass on a culture's traditions. Elders in many Native American communities work with public schools, their own tribal structures, or churches to help younger generations learn their indigenous language and tribal customs. The Oneida congregation I visited last Sunday in Wisconsin held a craft sale and fair during the meal and celebration following the service - all ages were involved in learning, doing, and sharing skills and delight.

Choirs and musical groups do the same kind of healing work as they pass on cultural and spiritual traditions, whether gospel choirs or Filipino dance groups or the Oneida singers.

Healing and health care
The urban context is in dire need of effective and available health care for all residents, yet that continues to be one of the more challenging areas of response. Some number of urban hospitals, particularly faith-related ones, make diligent efforts to reach out into the community with effective preventative care and urgent care, yet cities need more creative approaches. Rush Medical Center in Chicago has been blessed by the work of Bishop Anderson House, which provides pastoral care, teaches both ethics and the art of pastoral care, and invites medical practitioners into dialogue with spiritual caregivers. The House serves 10,000 people a year.

Parish nursing is one way in which relatively small interventions can have a significant effect on healing. Simply taking blood pressure readings and teaching people about managing their diabetes can radically improve quality of life. Walking groups heal bodies and spirits as they re-connect people to the land. The Diocese of Arizona has begun work in small community clinics across the border in the state of Sonora, Mexico. Community health workers manage clinics that open several days a week to respond to chronic health issues, provide health education and case management, and sponsor clinics with visiting physicians and nurse practitioners.

Whole communities
Sometimes entire communities become the focus of organizing and renewed life. Jubilee Park in Dallas had been cut off from broader community links by freeway construction 50 years ago. It held little hope for its residents as housing decayed, children had nothing to do, vacant land accumulated trash, and violence mounted. In 1998 the initial vision was for a park - a safe and attractive place for children and adults to meet, play, and socialize. St. Michael and All Angels was the catalyst, helping to buy empty lots for the park, paying cash to the owners, many of whom proved difficult to locate. One of the outcomes has been regularizing land ownership and clarifying residents' deeds. Developing the park has catalyzed renewal of the whole neighborhood, as homes have been renovated or razed and replaced with Habitat style builds. A Head Start center began in 2002, and a new Community Center provides English classes and community health education. A vegetable garden is feeding people. All of it has involved partners from across the community - including AmeriCorps, the ecumenical community, sports teams and athletic equipment manufacturers, philanthropists and construction enterprises, as well as the City of Dallas. In the process a city is being redeemed, and becoming a place where children can play in safety and their elders enjoy peace and greater health.

Attempts to organize entire communities are not always successful. Several years ago the Diocese of Northern Michigan began an innovative effort to respond to a newly planted community as a former air base was closed and converted to civilian use. The housing stock was made available for low income residents and businesses were sought who might begin to function in other buildings on the base. The regional civilian airport was re-sited on the base, yet almost no economic development has materialized. The base is far enough from other employment that transportation is a major expense. The need for response continues, as violence and hopelessness increase.

Last night, a multi-faith group called Greater Cleveland Congregations set out a vision of what that city might look like. As Dean Tracey Lind put it, "imagine a place where people are healthy, children are well educated, workers are employed in good jobs, nobody goes hungry, everybody feels safe and all are treated with dignity and respect." They will focus their organizing and partnership on education, jobs, health care, criminal justice, and sustainable food.

Environmental justice
I want to name one more area of healing in which community organizing could have a major impact. It's related to the care and nurture of entire communities, and, indeed, the entire planet. How often do we listen to the groaning of the earth, and the communicable diseases that we human beings are spreading across the globe? I don't mean AIDS or SARS, but the diseases of blind consumption and thoughtless waste. Creation is groaning in travail, waiting for the children of God to grow up into the full stature of Christ, and to start loving their neighbors as themselves. As the population of this planet continues to grow almost exponentially, and an increasing proportion removes to urban environments, the challenges of city living will only continue to increase. Kibera slum will soon seem an easy redevelopment project compared to the inadequately fed and housed millions who congregate in cities hoping for employment, education, and some possibility of living - hoping for hope.

Those cities, and the ones here, are going to be massively affected by climate change. We are seeing those realities already in the aftermath of Katrina, in the flooding along the Mississippi this spring, and in the tornadoes which have afflicted not only Tornado Alley but cities just west of here. Densely populated areas are more vulnerable to natural disasters, not only earthquakes but those disasters which grow in severity with increasing climatic change. The poorest are the most affected. Just as the lower Ninth Ward was more vulnerable to flooding in New Orleans, residents of mobile homes have died at far higher rates in these tornadoes than residents in more substantial and expensive housing.

Increasing population densities will differentially disadvantage the poorest. That is a structural injustice which must be addressed through advocacy and societal change as well as direct, hands-on ministries of care and healing. What sorts of organizing will emerge to address the differential vulnerabilities in our cities?

The other pressing structural challenge concerns the widening economic gap, not only in this nation, but globally. Climate change, coupled with present economic realities, is sending burgeoning economic powers abroad looking for farmland. The appetite for fuel continues to grow, adding to the social inequity and instability in almost all cities.

As the rates of consumption in the developed world show little sign of abating, who will go and speak for us? The resistance to change is legion. The biggest obstacle seems to be the lack of hope for prompting effective change. If new possibilities are coming to the authoritarian states of Africa and the Middle East in this Islamic spring, change is certainly possible in the developed West and North. We need bold and prophetic voices, we need networks of inspired and organized people, and we need that vision of a healed world of peace and justice for all. There is abundant work to be done, yet it must always be inspired by that vision of shalom and salaam - food and drink for feasting, dignified work and Sabbath leisure, none lording it over another, all God's children living in peace. Pray that it may be so - and work like hell to make it so.

[Taken with permission from the website of The Episcopal Church.]


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