Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Making Time

A few months ago I met a young Egyptian judge who was in Washington, DC, taking part in a fellowship program. “The problem with Americans is that they never have any time,” he told me. “Often I start a conversation with a person and he will say “Oh, that’s so interesting, I’d love to hear more about that.” But when I say, “Well, can we sit and talk for a few minutes, maybe have a cup of coffee?” he says, “I can’t stop now, I have another appointment.” And so the real conversation never happens, he said, noting sadly that he had made more friendships with people from other countries in Washington than with Americans.

I often feel that one of the greatest diseases in this country is over-busyness. Are we insecure if every minute of our days is not filled with some activity? Do we fear empty space?

The physical structures of American society do not encourage conversation. In Richmond, like many cities, we have wonderful neighborhoods with older homes where the original front porches have been removed. Until the days of air conditioning and TV people would sit and greet neighbors and passers-by. Today we move from hermetically sealed homes to solitary journeys in automobiles, or commute in trains and buses listening to iPods with our ears blocked to the world around us. We rush from one engagement to the next, often eating on the run, and becoming increasingly stressed.   

Facebook and text messaging are wonderful tools but they are no substitute for face-to-face interaction. A recent survey showed that the more Facebook contacts a person has the less likely he or she is to know the person living next door. When I led a workshop in a university last year, I asked students to identify qualities that helped to build trust. Interestingly, “willingness to make time” featured in many of their responses.

How do we make time? I used to laugh at the British rituals of “elevenses” and afternoon tea. But maybe Americans would benefit by adopting some habits that force us to slow down.

The Swedish author Henning Mankell wrote a fascinating column in the New York Times on December 10 entitled “The Art of Listening.” Mankell has lived “off and on” in Mozambique for nearly 25 years. “The simplest way to explain what I’ve learned from my life in Africa,” he writes, “is through a parable about why human beings have two ears but only one tongue. Why is this? Probably so that we have to listen twice as much as we speak.”

He continues, “In Africa listening is a guiding principle. It’s a principle that’s been lost in the constant chatter of the Western world, where no one seems to have the time or even the desire to listen to anyone else.” He celebrates Africa’s “unrestrained and exuberant storytelling that skips back and forth in time and blends together past and present,” and concludes: “What differentiates us from animals is the fact that we can listen to other people’s dreams, fears, joys, sorrows, desires and defeats — and they in turn can listen to ours.”

At we enter the holiday season, let’s slow down, make time to listen to one another, and share our stories.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Taking Care of our Politicians

Driving to Delaware for the family Thanksgiving we stopped for lunch. "My name is Christy and I will be taking care of you," announces the bright young woman who hands us a menu. And she really seems to mean it.

Later we stop at Kmart for supplies. We remark to one of the staff that the store has advertised that it will be open 24 hours a day over the holiday to get a jump on 'Black Friday' and we hope she will have time to enjoy some turkey. She replies cheerfully, "I will be doing the labeling on the first shift so I'll be off by 6am!"

One of the things that constantly surprises and impresses me is the genuine cheerfulness and spirit of service shown by so many Americans who work long hours for minimal pay. All across this country people do what needs to be done to take care of their families. And after a full day’s work many are taking care of their neighbors and their neighborhoods. This is the real world beyond the gridlock of Capitol Hill where politicians seem to inhabit a different universe.

But politicians are human too. Most enter public service with high ideals and often at considerable cost to themselves and their families. We elect them (if we bother to vote at all) and then expect them to become models of perfection, willing to have every aspect of their lives scrutinized by the media. They work under intolerable pressure. We rarely interact with them except to register a complaint or to advocate for some policy or legislation.   

At the recent Trust Factor forum in Washington, Mee Moua, a former state senator from Minnesota, urged her audience to "create authentic relationships with our civic and elected leaders, instead of transactional relationships where we only contact them when we need something.”

So, instead of just lobbying or vilifying politicians we might try a different approach. What if more of us were to offer them real friendship, perhaps invite them to an informal meal or cup of coffee with neighbors in our homes? We might start a conversation by saying: "We appreciate your willingness to serve our community. We are not here to debate politics. We have no agenda except to understand how we can help you do your best work. Please share with us what concerns you most at this time.” We might reach out even to those whose political views are different from our own.

Sure, it sounds simplistic and yes of course there are self-serving office holders. But our leaders are more likely to show political courage and take risks for the common good if they are surrounded by networks of selfless citizens who encourage them, speak honestly, and provide moral support. I choose to believe that if more of us took care of our politicians we might begin to change the political climate in Washington.

Monday, November 7, 2011

A New Generation of Leaders

I am flying home after an intensive two weeks in Europe! I have enjoyed my brief stay in the Netherlands. I like its human-sized scale, the streets full of cyclists (the Dutch must be a healthy people!) and the trams. On my arrival I am even allowed to travel without paying the train fare to The Hague. The machine had not processed my credit card correctly but the kind ticket collector takes pity on this ignorant American.
I feel tired but satisfied after delivering eight talks and workshops in eleven days as well as taking part in numerous discussions and informal consultations in six cities. Whatever the differences between Europe and America, the focus on trust as an indispensable foundation for constructive change in community relations, economics, and politics resonates everywhere. As I write, relationships in the Euro zone are being severely tested.

I have been blessed with excellent co-facilitators and assistants during my sojourn. In The Hague, Tessa Calkhoven bravely steps up with less than 48 hours preparation to help me lead an intensive all-day workshop for a diverse group of mostly young professionals and community activists.

At a vocational college in Amsterdam we meet with students of international journalism. After a half-hour talk on "the power of stories to build or break trust" they jump in with insightful questions and comments and it turns into a real dialogue for the next hour. They are particularly interested in stories of how to engage with the “other” – dialogues with Muslims and evangelical Christians in Richmond and the interactions with our newspaper that encouraged a more inclusive and constructive approach to news coverage.

One student asks, "Are you an optimist or a realist?" I reply, “A bit of both. You have to hold up a vision of what life can be, but you also have to accept that change takes time, that there is such a thing as evil in the world, and that you need short and medium-term benchmarks as well as loftier goals.”

Despite the country's reputation for tolerance, there's unease about the difficulty of integrating an increasingly diverse national community and the extent to which right-wing parties control the political process. After a lecture in The Hague, one woman says, “I have lived here for thirty years but I still am not treated as fully Dutch.” This prompts considerable discussion among the audience and agreement that there is still much need for “honest conversation."

I’m impressed by the high quality of young leaders that I encounter in Holland and the UK. In Liverpool, a workshop at Liverpool Hope University is organized by graduate Charlotte Sawyer and Jonty Herman, vice president of the student union. We begin by asking the students to discuss: "Do I trust myself? And what do I do when trust is broken?" To encourage the conversations, Willemijn, my co-facilitator in the UK, tells a personal story of her response to broken trust in a relationship that seems to touch students and sets the tone for the afternoon.

Liverpool Hope is producing a potentially significant group of new leaders through its School for Changemakers program. The vice chancellor and rector, Gerald Pillay, says it aims to prepare students "not only for the world of work but the work of the world." Over lunch he introduces me to two of his faculty. He tells the new head of War and Peace Studies, "We must arrange for you to visit Richmond!"

It's clear that the approach of Initiatives of Change has enormous appeal for this Millennial generation that abounds in talented young people who are committed to making a difference in the world. My Dutch colleagues tell me that 150 people applied for the new IofC position of general coordinator and the selection process was difficult. Thirty-two year-old Maurits van den Wall Bake, who was selected for the job a few weeks ago, is responsible for arranging my program and we compare notes on our priorities in our respective national organizations.
Like the US, the Initiatives of Change teams in the UK and Netherlands are exploring new ways of operating. There are many outstanding young people who would love to work with IofC. The challenge is not how to attract the next generation but to find ways to enable them to make their best contribution both within the organization and as agents of change embedded in non-profit agencies, businesses, and governments.   

I step off the plane in Richmond's quiet airport. Europe suddenly seems far away. Susan is waiting at the gate. It's good to be home.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Talking About the Elephant in the Room

My week-long program of talks, workshops and consultations in the UK continued in Bradford. Here are more notes from the road:

Bradford's magnificent town hall features a 220-foot clock tower modeled on the Campanile of the Palazzo Vacchio in Florence. In its heyday as the center of the wool trade, Bradford shared with Florence the distinction of being the only European city to sustain a fifty percent compound growth rate over two decades. It was the Silicon Valley, or Shanghai of its time. Ninety-five percent of the world's wool crop was traded here and much of it processed in its thriving mills.

When we arrive, my colleague Mike Smith, whose great-grandfather was a mill owner and served two terms as Lord Mayor, arranges a private tour of the town hall with its ornate council chamber paneled with Peruvian mahogany.

Today Bradford is a much different place. The industry is long gone but the city is expanding. A population of 3000 Muslims from South Asia in 1961, invited by Britain to work in the mills, had grow to 75,000 by 2001 and is projected to have increased by another fifty percent by this year.

My host, Philip Lewis, an adviser to the Anglican bishop on interfaith matters, teaches South Asian Islamic studies at Bradford University and serves on national interfaith and social justice commissions. The challenge in Bradford, says Lewis, is not the number of South Asians but the fact that the vast majority has origins in very underdeveloped rural Pakistan, particularly in Azad Kasmir.

The "elephant in the room," that is not much discussed says Lewis, author of Young, British and Muslim is that eighty percent of marriages are transcontinental (often among relatives). Even after three generations many young people have parents both of whom were born overseas. Extended clan networks and feuds are imported into the Bradford community, including the city council.
With Lewis we hold a discussion with leaders of the Bradford Council of Mosques that represents the city's eighty-six mosques. Lewis is an active partner with the Council in efforts to promote community harmony and understanding. In sharing some of Richmond's ongoing efforts in honest conversation, I comment that the big challenge for us to is to be willing to ask, "What is the conversation that is not taking place and what are the topics we fear to put on the table?" One younger Muslim leader responds, "We don’t just need prayer. We have to talk about the issues that tend to be swept under the carpet." Topics such as the generational divide, school catchment areas (many schools are almost 100 percent Asian) and the white and Asian underclass begin to emerge. "There is too much political correctness," says one person. Someone else mentions "blame." "We need to be prepared to take responsibility."

Bradford University is home to a world famous center for peace and conflict studies. My co-facilitator, Willemijn Lambert, has just completed her degree there and we meet several of her friends. I am honored to be asked to speak at the dinner for Rotary Peace Fellows and their sponsors. Perhaps the university can play an even more vital role in addressing tensions in the community. 

I leave Bradford increasingly thoughtful about the particular challenges facing UK cities and how this country can address new realities in a constructive way. But I am encouraged by chatting with my taxi driver. He is from Kashmir and he tells me his neighbor is from the Dominican Republic. “But we get along very well and we exchange presents at Christmas time.”

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Encounters with an Irrepressible Octogenarian

In my book I write about Richard Hawthorne, a Nottingham printer, who has built a web of friendships in his native UK city: "In the course of a day, a visitor moving through the city with Hawthorne might expect to meet a leading imam, the editor of the newspaper, the president of the chamber of commerce, and a director of human relations."

This was written following a whirlwind visit in 1999. Now at age eighty-one Richard has lost none of his irrepressible zest for life and remarkable gift of friendship for people in all walks of life in his native city. When I arrive with my young Dutch co-facilitator, Willemijn Lambert, at the start of an intensive week of talks and workshops in four English cities, Richard is waiting at the station eager to brief us on our program.

At one event we hear from Maxine, an Afro-Caribbean community activist who described her first encounter with Richard. "I thought, 'Who is this old white man?'" but now "Richard has become one of my best friends." They tease each other affectionately as we drive home with Richard attempting to navigate Nottingham traffic while talking non-stop. "Sometimes when we have community meetings in his home he is the only white person there," says Maxine.

We meet with Dr Musharraf Hussain, Director of the Karimia Institute, a leading British Muslim organization which works on a range of projects including community development, adult classes, and interfaith work. At his invitation we lead a workshop on "honest conversation" for young men and elders in his community center and do two radio interviews for the center's Radio Dawn.

Later I speak at a public seminar hosted by Nottingham's interfaith council. The Lord Mayor opens the evening by welcoming me to the city and although the event officially concludes at 9:15 and his official car is waiting outside neither he nor the rest of the audience seem anxious to end the dialogue.

The next morning at BBC Radio Nottingham, where we record another interview, Richard greets his local member of parliament. And so it goes on.

Richard, who was "painfully shy" as a young man, says his outreach to the Nottingham  community began many years ago with a realization that "Britain had recruited people from the Caribbean and Pakistan to do the work we did not want to do and we were treating them as second-class citizens." Sitting in his car one morning he "felt an inner call to open my heart to people I had kept at arm's length."

I think it is safe to say that there are few people in Nottingham today who have opened their heart and their home to so many people. As we drive off to our next stop, Bradford, Richard's booming laugh sends us on our way. He is already preparing for his next community meeting that evening.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

From Chaos to Community

A few months ago I took a call from Harold Vines. I had not heard from Harold since the late nineties when he came to take part in a Hope in the Cities training retreat for community leaders in Richmond. Harold told me he had seen the advance notice of The Trust Factor in Washington, DC. He had recently retired from the board of the Servant Leadership School (an outgrowth of the Church of the Saviour) in the Adams Morgan neighborhood and he wanted me to meet his friends. A few days later he introduced me to the executive director, Joseph Deck, and other colleagues. Harold said that after reading my book, “I had to ask myself, ‘Am I trustworthy?’”

Joseph Deck was immediately enthusiastic and took a copy of Trustbuilding to read. Before long he had offered the Festival Center on Columbia Avenue as a “hub” for The Trust Factor. This act of generosity has been typical of the diverse team that has come together in Washington to host this week’s activities.  Four partner organizations are giving event space without charge. Others are contributing pro bono staff time and facilitation skills. Some only met each other for the first time in recent weeks but are taking responsibility wholeheartedly. It is a creative, selfless pattern of partnership, a demonstration of trust.   
Throughout the Trust Factor week we will be in dialogue with people involved in trustbuilding in business, economics, on university campuses, and in the community. We’ll learn how people are drawing on their different faith traditions to face personal challenges and to sustain their work, and we’ll work on tools for racial healing and equity. “Civic Participation and Responsibility in Building Trust in Public Life” is the theme of the all-day session on Saturday which features a public dialogue with three remarkable leaders of both conservative and liberal backgrounds representing African American, European American, and more recent Asian immigrant communities.

What better time for Washington – and the world – to hear this message of trustbuilding? "Occupy Wall Street", the protests in Greece, and the ongoing struggle for democracy in Arab counties all indicate a deep mistrust of existing political establishments and a disconnect between those in positions of privilege or power and the majority who feel disenfranchised.

When our advance team arrived at the Festival Center a few days ago four men were sitting in the entrance lobby. Joseph Deck introduced us as the organizers of The Trust Factor. One older African American man exclaimed: “Trust! If we could get to trust we could move from chaos to community!” It turned out the group had been studying Martin Luther King’s final book: Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?  Next Sunday King’s memorial will be unveiled on the Mall. What better tribute could we pay to this great prophet of reconciliation and justice than to commit ourselves to building a sustained trustbuilding movement on which to build a fair and inclusive America?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Challenging a Racial Caste System

A “racial caste system” is alive in America, says Michelle Alexander, whose book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, provides some shocking statistics. I heard her speak in Richmond last week.

More African Americans are under some form of correctional control than were enslaved in 1850. As of 2004, more black men were disenfranchised (i.e. unable to vote due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870 when the Fifteenth Amendment prohibited laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race. In a city like Chicago, more than eighty percent of working age black males are or have been involved with the criminal justice system. Eighty percent of African American children can expect to spend a significant portion of their childhood apart from their fathers.

Significantly, incarceration rates bear little relationship to crime rates.  In fact the “war on drugs” which has resulted in a vast increase in the prison population – overwhelmingly African American men – began at a time when drug crimes were on the decrease. The prison population exploded from 300,000 to over 2 million in two decades. There are more people now in prison for drug offenses (mostly for possession, not distribution) than for all other reasons in 1980.

Alexander says that although this trend started under Republican administrations, it continued under Democrats. All politicians compete to show they are tough on crime. It’s even possible for a first-time drug offender to receive a life sentence. 

Why does she call this the “moral equivalent of Jim Crow”? Poor whites, she says, felt “socially demoted” during the civil rights era and through affirmative action. They did not experience greater job opportunities or receive college scholarships. They were the ones bused to integrated schools while wealthier whites escaped to private institutions or moved to outer suburbs. Politicians saw their resentment as a potent political force to be exploited. It was no longer acceptable to appeal to race explicitly, but the criminal justice system, especially drug laws, could be designed in ways that effectively discriminate against minorities.

By branding people as criminals they become permanently unemployable. Barred from public housing, excluded from food stamps and from federal student aid, many have also accumulated child support debt while in prison and are thus ineligible to hold a drivers license. Most return to prison within a few months.    

 “Those of us in the civil rights movement have allowed a human rights nightmare,” said Alexander. She was speaking to a largely African American crowd and did not mention Hispanics who form an increasingly large percentage of the prison population.   

Alexander is a former law clerk for Justice Harry Blackmun on the U.S. Supreme Court and a longtime civil rights activist and litigator. She holds a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Mortiz College of Law at Ohio State University.

Hearing such appalling statistics can leave you depressed and hopeless. The brightest spot in the evening came from two participants in Boaz and Ruth, a faith–based Richmond non-profit that supports ex-felons by providing life skills and training in small businesses management, furniture repair, and house renovation.

“Rebuilding lives, rebuilding neighborhoods,” Boaz and Ruth was the vision of a white businesswoman whose church had participated in Hope in the Cities dialogues. The two program graduates told the audience with obvious pride: “I am now a tax payer…I have a job… I got my GED… I drive a car… I own my home that I will pay off in ten years.”

Boaz and Ruth demonstrate one strategy that Alexander advocates: We must provide safe and welcoming spaces for those returning from prison. Becoming aware of the facts and being willing to talk about them is another vital step. Beyond that, she says, we must build a multi-racial, multi-ethnic movement to advocate for change in the system.    

My biggest question after hearing Alexander’s talk was this: How to build the necessary alliances to effect policy change? Highlighting examples like Boaz and Ruth is important because it demonstrates that people can and do change. But we will need to work strategically to engage people on both sides of the political divide.

I recall a forum in 1996 where Paul Weyrich, a conservative icon, surprised his audience by an admission that for many years he had ignored cries from the black community about police brutality and bias. “My attitude was, ‘Well, this is just a bunch of criminals probably trying to evade their just dues.’ But I must tell you that one of the most profound events in my political life was the revelation of the comments made by the detective Mark Fuhrman during O. J. Simpson’s trial. I was astounded and outraged... And so I began to look more closely, and I’ve taken a particular interest in Philadelphia where certain bad white cops have targeted a lot of innocent black people to advance themselves by enhancing their record of arrest.”
He concluded: “I now find that in many cases these cries have a great basis of legitimacy, and they are cries that the conservative community…needs to take seriously… And because of our own view on the subject of government power, and the need to keep government in check, we conservatives should have a natural sympathy for these cries and be able to start a dialogue.”

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Moving from Remembrance to Building the Future

On the day of the September 11, 2001 attacks our youngest son, Andrew, who was 15 at the time asked us, “Will this change our lives?”  While we wanted to say, “No,” we understood that we had entered a new era of uncertainty.

Last Sunday, on the tenth anniversary of that fateful day, my wife and I participated in the launch of the Richmond Faith Forum at St Paul’s Episcopal Church, where we have been members since coming to Richmond thirty years ago. The forum’s mission, says Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley, is to “live, laugh, and learn together.”  

Richmond is fortunate that relationships between faith groups have withstood the test of the pressure of world events over several decades. In 2001, faith leaders claimed unity and many people in the Richmond region reached out to support the Muslim community.  A group of Muslims and evangelical Christians have sustained a dialogue over several years. It’s not unusual for Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims, to join Jews at a Seder table for a Passover meal, hosted by a conservative synagogue.

Sunday’s forum featured the voices of youth – beginning with a video of  ten-year-olds of all backgrounds talking about the kind of world they want to see.  Their comments were practical and insightful: treat other with respect; work out your differences; be prepared to compromise; stand up for someone who is being picked on – because it’s the right thing to do.

They were followed by three university students who recalled their memories of 2001, how it had impacted their lives, and their sense of responsibility for the future. “I want to do something to help change the world,” said one.

Imad Damaj, from the Virginia Muslim Coalition for Public Affairs, told how several years ago he had called Glenn Proctor, the news editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch to express his unhappiness at the way the newspaper was presenting the Muslim community. Proctor invited Imad to meet with him. Imad said, “I will come, but I am not coming alone," and took a representative team to the meeting. That honest conversation, said Imad, “marked a change in the relationship with the newspaper.”

Tom Silvestri, president and publisher of the Times-Dispatch underscored the power of hope and optimism, and encouraged everyone to get to know their neighbors.  An interfaith panel of area clergy engaged in discussion with the audience. Rev. Jim Somerville of First Baptist Church sat between Rabbi Ben Romer of Congregation Or Ami and Imam Ammar Amonette of the Islamic Center of Virginia. Said Somerville: “We’ve shared meals together. I bump into the Imam sometimes when I’m out jogging. I see Ben at the Jewish Community Center where I work out. It feels like a friendship is growing between us, and that’s remarkable for a Baptist minister.”

Sunday was a good day to be in Richmond and to feel the strength of this community.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Revolution We Need

I write this from Cape Cod with the winds of Irene rattling the house.

On the way from Richmond last week, Susan and I visited the “Breakers,” the seventy-room summer "cottage" built in 1892 by the Vanderbilts in Newport, Rhode Island. The end of the Gilded Age, symbolized by such remarkable monuments to wealth and power and to a grand vision of America, was hastened by the introduction of personal income tax (the Sixteenth Amendment) under Taft's Republican White House in 1913.

His predecessor and fellow Republican, Teddy Roosevelt, challenged the financial and industrial barons with his antitrust actions. He promised a “square deal” for all Americans and in industrial negotiations he treated union leaders as equals with industry bosses. This trend towards greater equity in society continued through the 1960s.

Driving north we listened to commentaries on the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington. Irene forced postponement the dedication. But the memorial is already provoking conversation about what King might have said about America today. He died as he was launching a Poor People’s Campaign. Surely he would have been shocked and outraged to find a country growing ever more unequal. More than one in five children lives in poverty, the highest rate in two decades.  This is an appalling statistic for the wealthiest country on earth.

But today even talking about disparity provokes accusations of promoting class war. Warren Buffet is called a “socialist” for daring to suggest that people like himself might pay a fair share of taxes.  In the Orwellian-speak of today the “wealthy” must now be termed “job creators.” People receiving welfare are described by right-wing talk show commentators as “parasites,” “moochers,” and “irresponsible animals.”

Where did we develop this disdain for those in poverty? Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dime, reminds us that the working poor are the nation’s true philanthropists: they make it possible for the rest of us to live comfortably. There’s a case to be made that our whole economic system depends on paying people less than what they are worth.  

So far, America has avoided the violent upheavals experienced by several European countries. But we cannot assume that people who are being pushed to their limit will forever remain docile.

We need a revolution of unselfishness. Here’s a great example: the Fresno, California School Superintendent, Larry Powell, has just announced that he will take a pay cut – reducing his annual salary from $250,000 to $31,000. Fresno has extremes of wealth and poverty, and with schools facing painful budget choices, “My wife and I thought, what can we do that might help change the dynamic in my particular area?” Powell told ABC News.   

This kind of revolutionary unselfishness is needed more urgently now than ever.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

What to do with our anger?

I was pleasantly surprised by Joe Nocera’s column in the New York Times on August 22.  He apologized. In an earlier column he had compared Tea Party Republicans to terrorists.

Like many of us, Nocera was outraged that those who precipitated the financial crisis are not being prosecuted more vigorously; by the attempts to undermine the Dodd-Frank financial sector reform law; and by the attacks on Elisabeth Warren as she tried to set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The final straw was the political brinksmanship over the debt ceiling.

While not backing away from his convictions, Nocera had the grace to apologize for his “intemperate” remarks and to promise that he will refrain from “calling anybody names” in the future.

I share Nocera’s outrage. I’m mad as hell at the damage done by the greed of the banks and that those who were negligent and incompetent in overseeing Wall Street are now lecturing us on credit ratings. And I’m most angry that the poorest and most vulnerable are paying the price for the greed of the rich and powerful.

What do we do with our anger? Experience shows that simply venting our emotions and naming enemies may make us feel better but rarely leads to productive change. 

However much I may deplore their politics, I am certain that most Tea Party activists are true patriots who want the best for this country. Some of them may be misguided idealists, but it’s not for me to question their integrity.  

I once heard William Raspberry, a columnist with the Washington Post, tell a group of community activists that a focus on enemies “diverts time and energy from the search for solutions.”  It’s important to ask ourselves, “If I defeat the enemy in the battle I have engaged, will my problem be nearer to a solution? People respond more favorably to being approaches as potential allies.” 

Approaching enemies as allies. This seems to be the great challenge of our time. Because increasingly in today’s complex and interrelated world we cannot solve our biggest problems without some measure of collaboration and trust with those with whom we disagree.      

Collie and Audrey Burton, two activists in the African American community in Richmond, Virginia, had the courage to build a friendship and then a partnership with Howe Todd, the senior assistant city manager, a white man with whom Collie had clashed on public policy issues and whom they suspected of racial bias. That relationship, and Todd’s new willingness to listen to others in the community, sent ripples though the city and led to countless unexpected partnerships across racial and political lines and to what we now know as Hope in the Cities.  

In 1996, Initiatives of Change convened leaders from opposite ends of the political spectrum for an “honest conversation” on race and to launch A Call to Community at the National Press Club. Blacks, whites, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Republicans, and Democrats sat and talked. They had different views about the appropriate role of government, the efficacy of affirmative action plans, even about the nature of the problem itself. But they were united in the belief that through honest conversation, a healing for the nation might begin.

A Call to Community, which was endorsed by mayors across the country, by members of congress from both parties, by leaders of different faiths and national civil rights organizations, concluded with a seven-point framework for partnership and responsibility. It proposed: 
  • Listening carefully and respectfully to each other and to the whole community
  • Bringing people together, not in confrontation but in trust, to tackle the most urgent needs of the community
  • Searching for solutions, focusing on what is right rather than who is right.
  • Building lasting relationships outside our comfort zone.
  • Honoring each person, appealing to the best qualities in everyone, and refusing to stereotype the other group
  • Holding ourselves, communities and institutions accountable in areas where change is needed.
  • Recognizing that the energy for fundamental change requires a moral and spiritual transformation in the human spirit.
Suppose our elected leaders – and those of us who elect them – used these points as benchmarks for our daily interactions. Could it lead to some unexpected and creative steps that would move the country forward?  

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Theology for Radicals

I’m reflecting on some of the “disconnects” in American life. One is the glaring gap between personal faith and public policy.  How is it possible that the most overtly religious nation in the developed world has the greatest gulf between rich and poor? Why does a country with so many churches imprison more of its people than anywhere else on earth (and still insist on inflicting the death penalty)? What is our justification for resisting universal health care?    

Americans are among the most generous people on earth. They are also highly practical and love problem solving. Given accurate information they usually want to do the right thing.

But because our social lives are so separate (our places of worship, schools, and neighborhoods are often defined by race or class), we build up images of fellow Americans that are prejudiced or inaccurate at best. Our information sources are increasingly narrowly based and tend to reinforce our existing biases. They don’t challenge us to think beyond our own experience or viewpoint.

So a person who volunteers time and talent to helping earthquake victims in Haiti, or building churches or schools in Central America, or who fosters a dozen children, may also advocate public policies in their home town that deny education to immigrant children, reduce access to health care for those who can least afford it, or cut mass transportation to suburbs where most available entry-level jobs are located.   

A few days ago I was sitting with Ben Campbell of the Richmond Hill Retreat Center and some other local Christian leaders discussing urban ministry. Ben reckons that ninety percent of new churches in the Richmond region are non-denominational. There’s a growing interest in urban ministry among committed evangelicals in these flourishing new congregations in the ever-expanding suburban areas. This is a potentially powerful force for good. 

However, Campbell says that for the most part these dedicated, mostly young Christians have no knowledge of social issues or the history of racism and exclusion, no understanding of tax policies, or of the factors that impact housing, public education, and transportation. 

At the other end of the spectrum, many mainline liberal churches are actively engaged in social issues but have lost focus on core moral and spiritual truths. They are not providing an environment that is attractive to a new generation of Christians. In addition, failure to root social justice efforts in the bedrock of a strong inner life and lived-out values can endanger the most idealistic efforts. 

In The Beloved Community, Charles Marsh calls burnout “the activist’s occupational hazard.”  He points to the early days of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC ) when, starting in 1960, thousands of white students came to the South to work for reconciliation and justice alongside African Americans. The movement, he writes, pursued a form of discipleship that was “life affirming, socially transformative, and existentially demanding: a theology for radicals.”  Resisting the “cultural paradigm of efficiency," it made time for “reverie and solitude and for rituals that were refreshingly unproductive. A certain kind of contemplative discipline was an important disposition in building community and enabling trust.” 

What would America look like if mainline liberal Christians deepened their spiritual lives and their moral accountability, and if conservative evangelicals committed themselves to a strategic engagement for justice?  We might see a theology for radicals that could lead to a profound transformation of the social and economic landscape.   

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Trust in Investing

If you are feeling cynical about the world of finance and investment you should talk with Patrick Davis.  He’s a 25-year-old senior associate with the Calvert Foundation, a Washington-based non-profit that aims to maximize the flow of capital to disadvantaged communities. The organization enables investors – large and small – to earn a financial return while lifting families out of poverty.

Patrick’s enthusiasm is infectious. He believes we need to fundamentally rethink our relationship to money and to simultaneously build a new economy on the principles of sustainability and social equity.  And he thinks the time is ripe for such a revolution. He says investors are seeing the writing on the wall: “Unless we address environmental degradation, unemployment, and the education gap, even the most powerful corporations will have no customers.”

Long before the Bernie Madoff scandal and other Ponzi schemes made headlines there has been a structural disconnect in our economy that reinforces a disproportionate distribution of wealth. Patrick believes that the focus on short-term returns in the corporate and financial sectors has “produced a broken economy built on perpetual distrust and resentment.” 

Over a sandwich at Potbelly near his Bethesda, Maryland office, he told me, “We need to talk about the larger ecosystem, get away from quarter-to-quarter earnings and think about sustainability.” With degrees in Economics, Government & Politics, and a minor in Latin American Studies, Patrick was looking for a middle ground between wealth management and non-profits. The Calvert Foundation, which offers an alternative to traditional philanthropy or strictly market-based investing, was the perfect fit. 

According to its website, Calvert investors have put nearly $200 million to work in 250 community organizations in all 50 states and over 100 countries. These investors are supporting a diversified mix of high-impact organizations involved in affordable housing, microfinance, Fair Trade coffee, small business development, as well as charter schools, daycare centers and rehabilitation clinics.  Investors and supporters have helped build or rehabilitate over 17,000 homes, create 430,000 jobs in the U.S. and in developing countries, and finance over 25,000 cooperatives, social enterprises, and community facilities.

Last year, Patrick spent two weeks helping with the rebuilding efforts in Haiti. It was, he says, a life-changing experience.

Now he’s planning a workshop in October, as part of The Trust Factor 2011 program in Washington, to spread the word about “impact investing” to a lay audience. This approach produces “blended value – financial, social, and environmental returns.”  Patrick wants to demonstrate the role of “trustbuilding amongst financial advisors and clients, trustbuilding in local communities, and broadly a restoration of trust in the economy for the public.”

My guess is that there are thousands of talented people of Patrick’s generation who share his passion for a new vision in the financial sector where returns are “built on real assets that are visible in the community, rather than inflated bookkeeping and complicated financial arrangements.”  

And that makes me feel a whole lot more hopeful about the future.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Promise Made Under Texas Live Oaks

Mark and Ariane are married. They exchanged their vows shaded by ancient live oaks on July 3. Even at 7pm the Texas sun kept the temperature hovering in the high nineties. In a touch of thoughtful creativity, the order of service was printed on fans. 

A guitarist played Bach's Air on the G String. Parents read Letters to a Young Poet and Pathways  by Rainer Maria Rilke; two Celtic prayers by David Adam; Blessing for a Marriage by James Dillet Freeman; the Prayer of St Francis; and Litany by Billy Collins.  

Susan and I now have a second daughter-in-law and we are thrilled beyond words to welcome Ari to the Corcoran clan. As the mother of three sons, Susan appreciates the increased female presence in the family.

The day before the ceremony, seventy family members and friends gathered for a rehearsal lunch at Torchy's Tacos at the Trailer Park Eatery, one of Mark and Ari's favorite Austin haunts. It was a joyous multicultural, multigenerational celebration.

Despite the odds, marriage and faithful relationships based on mutual trust are still the ideal to which most of our sons' friends aspire.  Mark and Ari’s promise and commitment to each other:
“Loving what I know of you,
Trusting what I don’t yet know,
With respect for your integrity
And faith in your abiding love for me.”

The day after the wedding I came across a column by Ross Douthat in the New York Times entitled More Perfect Unions  “Institutions tend to be strongest when they make significant moral demands, and weaker when they pre-emptively accommodate themselves to human nature,” he writes.

"A successful marital culture depends not only on a general ideal of love and commitment, but on specific promises, exclusions and taboos….The hardest promises to keep are often the ones that keep people together."

During the wedding festivities Andrew, Mark's brother and best man, warned Ari of certain genetic Corcoran traits: selective hearing, endless capacity for argument, and obsession with sports (watching, that is). "Don't blame them, it’s not their fault; they were made that way." But he concluded with one important Corcoran quality: "We find the greatest women in the world and we never let them go."

I say amen to that.