Matthew Ruffner: Seeking the Welfare of Our Cities


Today we are going to turn to the prophet Jeremiah and to the 29th chapter, but before we read the text, we should explore the context just for a minute. Jeremiah is writing to a people who are in exile. They are in exile because they have just been conquered by the Babylonian Empire. They've been conquered after a four-year battle for the city of Jerusalem to which the Babylonian army has laid siege. Now you need to know that the Babylonian Army was ruthless, and laying siege was a military tactic that they often employed. Laying siege means that the Babylonian army would literally surround your city, and they would choke off precious resources from ever making their way in -- precious resources like food and water and wine -- you know, the daily living essentials.

Once the Babylonian army brought a city to their knees, they would enter the city and ravage the city and her people. They would take all available resources, burn the city to the ground, and for good measure on their way out of town they would throw handfuls of salt on their fields, ensuring that their fields would not prosper for generations.

The Israelites are in exile. They are cut off from all they have known. They are cut off from resources and a sense of place and belonging. It is in this context that the prophet Jeremiah writes today's passage.

I live across the street from Kramer Elementary School, in Dallas Texas. Every morning at 7:15 the carpool line forms just outside our window. I imagine this scene happens all around the United States at almost every public school in America. A little girl hops out of her mom's luxury SUV and runs into school. She's had a good night's sleep in her own bed, she had a nourishing breakfast that morning, she has a monogrammed backpack on, with her homework that she finished the night before with the help of her parents. She's all set for a good full day at school. She better be, because it's going to be a full day -- lots of activities. After school, she's going to be right back in that SUV and headed for a series of after-school enrichment opportunities.

In that same carpool line, in every one of our schools, there is another little girl who climbs out of the backseat of the car. This time it is a car she had spent the night in. In fact, just half an hour earlier they had been at a local fast food place so she could run in, use the restroom, wash herself up, and brush her teeth before she got back in that very same car to go to school that day. She too has her homework in her backpack, although it's not completed. They closed the public library before she and her mom could get her homework done that night.

Later that morning these two little girls are going to sit down and compete on the national standardized math test to see who gets placed in the advanced math class. Guess who has the advantage?

Recent statistics tell us that, where I live, 1 in 5 North Texas children live in poverty -- that 90% of our Dallas Independent School District students are considered low income. Dallas, where I live, now leads the country in income inequality. Poverty in Dallas and in all our cities is nothing new. It's what has led faith communities to come together and form ministries like North Dallas Shared Ministries to help assist those in crisis. It is what has led faith communities and corporate communities alike, all around America, to create food banks, providing food to those who literally have no other place to turn for a next meal. Do you know that the Dallas Food Bank raised more money last year then they have raised in their entire history? And not only did they raise more money than they ever had before, but they also gave out more food than they ever have before. Which means that never had there been more hungry people in North Texas than last year. Our solution to big-scale issues of poverty has been to build larger and larger food banks.

My colleague the Rev. Kathy Lee Cornell loves to tell the following parable. A couple went camping one weekend by the river. They awoke one morning to find a child floating down the river. They were startled, and so they jumped in and they rescued the child. They dried the child off, fed the child, and gave the child a warm place to sleep that night. The next morning, they awoke to the same scene, there was another child floating down the river, and so they jumped in and saved the child. They dried the child off, fed the child, and gave the child a warm place to sleep. This happened for the next four days in a row! Until they finally looked up and they had five children, and it dawned on them, "Where are all these children coming from? We have to hike upstream and figure out where these children are falling into the river."

Friends, I think that we have to get upstream on the issues that are contributing to poverty in our cities. We need bigger solutions to the issues facing our communities. What we have been doing has not been working. I think we can all agree on that.

We have to get upstream not only to address the issues but, like the couple who were camping, we have to get upstream because we have to acknowledge that we belong to the people, the children, who are on the other side of the statistics that we heard. Numbers aren't mere numbers, my dear friends. The numbers represent our brothers and sisters who are suffering.

The prophet Jeremiah in our passage today is speaking to the Israelites -- who are now in exile. They have been traumatized by the Babylonians. They are hurting and broken -- and in their moment of greatest vulnerability, their greatest temptation was to turn inward to protect only their families and their community, and obviously so. 

But the prophet Jeremiah implores them, even in their moments of greatest vulnerability, to look outward, because their wellbeing was wrapped up in the wellbeing of all of God's people. Jeremiah was trying to teach them that they aren't merely taking care of others at the expense of themselves, but rather, as a community, we are all better when we are all thriving. Jeremiah is saying, "Do not close yourself off, but open yourselves up to the wellbeing of all God's people."

If Jeremiah was teaching the Israelites in their moment of greatest vulnerability to look outward, then what should we do in our moments of perceived strength? I continue to be deeply inspired by the story of what one Presbyterian did in a moment of strength that transformed the way that he saw the world, how he addressed poverty, and how he invested his life.

Tom Cousins, a very successful real estate developer in Atlanta, read an article in The New York Times published back in the mid-1990s that claimed that the majority of New York's prison population could be traced back to eight neighborhoods in New York City. Mr. Cousins thought that that couldn't be - a majority of New York's prison population couldn't be populated by eight neighborhoods in one city. So he picked up the phone and called the weekend editor at The New York Times. And he said, "I have just read the most alarming statistic in the newspaper this morning. That number can't be true." The weekend editor assured Mr. Cousins that the statistic was true and he urged him to call the chief of police in Atlanta, because he believed that there was a similar statistic in every major U.S. city in America.

Mr. Cousins, being Mr. Cousins, picked up the telephone and called the Atlanta chief of police and shared the statistic that he had just read in The New York Times. The chief of police in Atlanta said, "Mr. Cousins, I could trace the majority of Atlanta's jail population back to even fewer than eight neighborhoods. I could trace the majority back to about four, with one neighborhood being the main culprit -- that's the East Lake Commons neighborhood." Mr. Cousins said, "I can't believe that the majority of the prison population here in Fulton County comes from one neighborhood. And you're telling me that neighborhood is just east of where I live? I want to go and see that East Lake neighborhood." The Chief of Police said, "Mr. Cousins, that is not a good idea, it's really dangerous. In fact, our officers have stopped patrolling that neighborhood. They call it Little Vietnam." Mr. Cousins said, "With all due respect, Chief, I've got to go see it."

When Mr. Cousins arrived at the East Lake neighborhood, he saw children everywhere running the streets and people hanging around. He saw a broken neighborhood and a lot of trash. But then, something remarkable happened as he saw the children running the streets: he thought to himself in that very moment, "These children didn't get to choose where they were born. They didn't get to choose this. If I had been born here, I would have probably ended up just like the statistics I read."

Mr. Cousins made his way through the neighborhood a little further and he met a woman holding a beautiful child, and he introduced himself. He asked the woman, had she grown up in East Lake? She said, "Yeah, I've lived here my entire life." "Is that your child you're holding? It's the most beautiful baby I've ever seen." And she said, "Oh, this baby? This is my grandbaby." He said, "Ma'am, I don't want to be presumptuous, but would you mind telling me how old you are?" The woman said, "I'm twenty-nine." 

Mr. Cousins went home and he told his wife about the experience he'd had in the East Lake neighborhood and what it was like to meet a twenty-nine-year-old grandmother. That evening, he went to bed and he had a dream. In his dream he died, and he got to heaven and God was there waiting. And God said, "Tom, you've been an incredible businessperson, one of the most successful real estate developers in the southeast, you've been a fine Presbyterian, you've done more to help Presbyterian ministers than maybe anybody else, but just a quick question for you, Tom. What did my church have to say to the twenty-nine-year-old grandmother?" Mr. Cousins woke up and the question haunted him. He told his wife about his dream, went about his daily work and the next night he went to bed and had the exact same dream. In his dream he dies, he gets to heaven, God is waiting. God says, "Tom, you've been an incredible businessperson, one fine Presbyterian -- just one question for you, Tom. What did my church have to say to the twenty-nine-year-old grandmother you met?" The third night, he went to bed and had the exact same dream, but something changed. In his dream, he died, got to heaven, God was waiting on him. God said, "Tom, you have been an incredible real estate developer, a model Presbyterian, but please tell me that my church had something to say to the twenty-nine-year-old grandmother you met." Mr. Cousins woke up, he rolled over to his wife, Ann, and said, "Ann, we have to do something about the twenty-nine-year-old grandmother." 

So, the next day they went to their family foundation and they changed the way they did business. They halted all of their small grants, they changed every strategy they had on how to eradicate and break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. They made a big investment into the East Lake community by building relationships, and then a development plan followed. It wasn't easy, and it wasn't cheap, but it was what they felt called to do. "Please tell me that my church had something to say to the twenty-nine-year-old grandmother."

Most people look at the East Lake neighborhood redevelopment and they think the miracle is that Mr. Cousins invested so much of his money, his capital, into a broken neighborhood, when in reality the miracle of that whole story is that day when he recognized that he belonged to a twenty-nine-year-old grandmother who lived just mere miles from where he lived.

That day was a day of transformation because he realized that he belonged to the kids running the streets, and they belonged to him. Mr. Cousins understood that if he belonged to God, then he was included in the body of Christ. If God's grace included him -- then they too were part of the same body.

Friends, we are the body of Christ and individually members of it. We belong to one another in Christ -- and we do not get to decide who belongs and who doesn't. That is up to God alone. For our welfare is wrapped up in the welfare of all of God's people.

In the world in which we live today, my dear friends, I can think of no greater message. We have to begin here, recognizing that we belong to one another because we belong to God. For our wellbeing is connected to the wellbeing of all of God's people.

May we too be inspired beyond where we have settled to where God would have us be. For in our cities' welfare you will find your welfare. May it be so this day and all of our days. Amen.