The Crutch of Complications

 

5yrplanIt’s that time of year again: Fresh starts, resolutions and goal setting for individuals and strategic planning and visioning for companies.  Plans are everywhere—we are going to be a fitter, happier, richer, calmer, more perfect people.

Normally, this would make this type A woman a very happy individual. But I’ve come to realize that we hide behind plans more than we execute them.  As long as we are planning, we don’t need to act. “Are we helping the community?” we ask ourselves as we munch on our catered lunch during a retreat day. “Well, not right this second, but it is important to take time do it right,” we tell ourselves. “Best not to rush into anything,” we all agree across the conference table.

We lie to ourselves.  We fear the boldness, and we hide behind the caution.

The truth is the world is not hard to crack.

For example, most of us do not need a miracle pill to lose weight; barring certain medical complications, eating less chocolate, more vegetables and exercising would work fine.  But we hate those things, so we instead create elaborate schemes to reach a comparable effect.

We do the same thing when it comes to healing our world.  We hold conferences on community building, give fancy banquets to unleash five year strategic plans, and spent thousands on special events where we “bring the people together.”

We create smoke and mirrors to generate warm fuzzies while still remaining comfortable.  Well, my resolution is to stop buying it, and I invite you to join me. The world is crying out, and your intention to help it is no longer enough.  It is time for follow-through.  It is time to get uncomfortable.

How do we best love those in need? Jesus gave us a simple example.  The problem is not that it is complicated to love the poor well.  The problem is that it is challenging from our lens of fear, greed, and caution. These are Jesus’ directions:

Go.

Love.

Meet people where they are, listen to them, and love them, no matter what.  Are they worthy? Do they have potential? Are they trying? Do they fit the criteria of who we said we would help? None of these questions matter. Just love people with the hope and prayer that they can become what they were meant to be—not what you want them to be—but what they were meant to be.  Then, let God do the rest.

It may not be fancy.  It may not create millions of gifts of charity and get a celebrity endorsement.  But it’s the most effective way because it is of God.  Those strategic plans sound phenomenal, but they are made of man.  It is time to look up from those plans, and see the person in front of you in need.

Brother Jim is not afraid of action. He does not hide behind the need for good statistics. He does not rely on sound bytes from those with whom he works.  There is no strategy beyond loving those he encounters.  He is free from plans. While you’re busy meeting about how to help the poor, he’s out on the streets doing it.  Consider this your open invitation to join him.

–Megan Cottam

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Death by a Thousand Cuts

blog12.11Tragic acts of unthinkable violence are covering the news in the United States.  The questions linger:

How could someone commit such a terrible act of violence and terrorism?

How could someone shoot and kill in their own neighborhood? How could they gangbang and commit evil acts against such young children?

What made them break?

When tragedy strikes, we are stopped in our tracks. What major event went wrong in a person’s life for this to be their path?

We are usually left without an answer, because there is no one major event.  There are a host of minor, invisible structural sins that caused these men and women to break. Even harder to face is that these sins are created by us—the “innocents.” How could we possibly have blood on our hands? The Christians?  The do-gooders? The law-abiding citizens?

Let me ask you a few questions:

Do you like quality education for your children?

You use your privilege to buy sought-after property in a great school zone, or you use your financial capital to send your child to a private school.  By doing this, the great resources, teachers, and opportunities converge in middle to upper class areas, leaving voids in low-income public schooling.  Furthermore, rather than advocate for a quality school in your own area, it becomes much easier to ignore the failing schools.  No one is left to advocate for them, as the poor often times are caught in other more immediate fights—such as keeping their heat on or maintaining their minimum wage shift jobs with unpredictable schedules—and the achievement gap widens.

Further reading:

https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/frss/publications/98032/index.asp?sectionid=7

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/07/rich-kid-poor-kid-how-mixed-neighborhoods-could-save-americas-schools/260308/

Do you like your cheap clothes and fast food?

You are helping keep workers at a wage they cannot live on.  They work several part time jobs because their employers keep costs low and refuse them full time jobs with benefits.  They give them a minimum wage without raises, because it is more important that their savings be passed onto you, the demanding consumer. Or, they use loopholes to break the laws completely, especially for vulnerable immigrants.

Further reading: https://www.hrw.org/news/2005/01/24/abuses-against-workers-taint-us-meat-and-poultry

 

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2014-02-02/news/ct-minimum-wage-illinois-met-20140202_1_minimum-wage-many-workers-economic-policy-institute

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VdLf4fihP78

Are you unwilling to step foot in the “less nice parts of town?”

You are creating isolated ghettos where small businesses cannot function, revenue and tax streams cannot exist, and housing remains segregated and cut off from quality transportation and job access.

Further reading: http://www.asu.edu/courses/aph294/total-readings/blakely%20–%20dividedwefall.pdf

Are you unwilling to hire someone with a minor criminal record?

You are helping to keep a generation of young men and women from an honest living, forcing them return to their prior ways of drug dealing and theft in order to provide for their families.

Further Reading: https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/news/2011/dec/15/study-shows-ex-offenders-have-greatly-reduced-employment-rates/

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/01/business/out-of-trouble-but-criminal-records-keep-men-out-of-work.html?_r=0

Do you value security over admissions in terms of immigrants and refugees?

You are adding to the fear and discrimination of our country’s minorities, especially minorities from Central America, Mexico, and the Middle East.  The protests against Mosques in your own backyards and the demand for English over Spanish in your schools is contributing to the hardship of these peoples.

Source: http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/20/politics/paris-attacks-trump-carson-bush-muslims-refugees-mosques/

http://research.policyarchive.org/21623.pdf

Is any one of these things intentional? Probably not.  But regardless, your actions have a tremendous impact on people you will most likely never meet.

All of these small cuts create the desperation that led these gunmen down the paths that make the evening news. These men and women did not lash out in anger because you murdered someone they know.  But they are lashing out because punch by punch, your choices of convenience have caged them, diminished them, and made their ability to overcome their obstacles futile.

So when you see another mas shooting, or a black teenage body in a coffin, start asking yourself what social sins you have committed that contributed to the violence. What have you done out of fear?

More than any politician, police task force, FBI or terror watch force, your lifestyle choices and your mercy (or lack thereof) to the poor create an environment where anger upon anger builds, until it explodes. Or shoots.

–Megan Cottam

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Scripture Reflection: 2nd Week of Advent

 

Barach 5:1-9

Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11

Luke 3:1-6

The readings talk of anticipating what is hoped for.  For Baruch it is the returning of the Israelites to Jerusalem from forced exile.  For John the Baptist it is the coming of the Messiah who will redeem the Jews from their oppressors.  For Paul it is the second coming of Jesus the Christ.

This seems like a good news/bad news situation.  The good news is that we are going to get what we want.  The bad news is that there are going to be hardships.  Jews in Babylon thrived in many ways.  They found that God was with them in spite of being in a foreign land with foreign Gods.  They came to appreciate God’s love for them and began to realize that they would return home.

In going home Jerusalem had been destroyed and they rebuilt from devastation.  Unfortunately, their freedom was short-lived.   They were overtaken by foreign powers and their governmental and religious leaders were co-opted first by the Greeks and then the Romans.  Their homeland struggled between keeping their identity and becoming a foreign country.  In fighting to keep their identity, they were exploited by their own institutions.

The Jews were fed up with how the world was working; John cries out that things are going to dramatically change.  Israel was about to see the salvation of the Lord.  Unfortunately, they were expecting to see a General/King who would toss out the Romans, reform the Temple worship, and create the Kingdom of God based in Jerusalem.  Instead they got the Son of God, who proclaimed that the “Kingdom of God” was in their midst.  The Son of God was crushed by both the Romans and the Temple authorities.  A split occurred between the Jews and the followers of the Son of God (Christians).  The early Christians discovered the risen Christ in their lives.  The Jews lost their homeland for 2000 years.

Paul writes for the early Christians who have experienced the risen Christ, but things are not going well there either.  Paul was expecting the imminent return of the Risen Christ who would create the “Kingdom of God” for the whole world to see.  That vision has yet to come.

So what do the readings and Advent say to us?  First, God is in our midst.  Second, we have the love of the risen Christ.  Third, hardships will continue to pop up in our lives.  Fourth, we have the opportunity to discover the “Kingdom of God” operating in our lives.

Brother Jim Fogarty, BSL

 

 

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Gun Violence in America and the World

America is divided again over guns and gun control.  30,000 people die each year from guns.  That means over 1,000,000 Americans have died from guns since President Kennedy was assassinated.  Yet some of us say that nothing is wrong with guns.

There seems to be two reasons why this is happening and no one is talking about them except Pope Francis.

The first is that people are making lots of money on the sale of guns, particularly automatic and assault weapons.  Francis said it well in his address to congress.  The conflicts around the world are being fueled by money, “Blood Money.”  This is also true inside America.

I heard it said that the inventor of Uzi, on his death bed, wrote a bishop in Austria, worried that his invention, while making him wealthy may have cost him his soul.  I hope the bishop did not say, “Pray three Hail Marys and send a check to the Vatican Bank.”

Let’s face it: There is not enough money to be made selling rifles for the hunting of deer, wolves, and birds.

The second reason is hardness of heart.  After every mass killing, gun advocates vehemently refuse to discuss any solution except arming ourselves against bad people.  Meaning every time we leave our homes we should be prepared to kill our neighbor.

The Bible often calls the Israelites a hard-hearted stiffed-necked people.  Hardheartedness is the great sin of the Old Testament.  Jesus often talked on hardness of heart, but seldom do Christians talk about it.

It is easy to see the hardness of heart of ISIS, the Taliban, or a suicide bomber, but seldom do we face our own hard-heartedness.  Hardness of heart causes a gang member shoot into a crowd of mostly innocent people.  Hardness of heart causes a man to kill his wife or girlfriend, witnesses, and even his own children. Hardness of heart causes us to invade a country without worrying about the consequences then continue justifying those actions when we are wrong.

Hardness of heart plus a gun, a drone, a missile, or a bomb (suicide, nuclear, homemade, or even a bomb in an airplane) are bad combinations.   Hardheartedness leads us to pretend looking for root causes, blaming mentally ill people, and denying that certain fire arms are designed for mass killing.

As a human being I know about hardness of heart.  Many things cause us to harden our hearts.  To grow as a follower of Jesus, we have to learn to consciously soften our hearts, so that we can find better solutions.  But when money is at stake, human life becomes secondary to economics.

–Brother Jim Fogarty, BSLgun violence

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How Not to Solve the Gun Problem: Lessons from the Streets

gunsAfter the shooting in Oregon, an interesting phenomenon has developed in America: We’re getting too tired to talk about gun violence. With each mass shooting, there seems to be less crying in public, less pause and shock, and even less debate about what to do next.  The unthinkable is seeping its way into everyday reality. Both the pro-gun and gun control activists can do little more than repeat on autopilot their worn-out party platforms. Listening to our President’s speeches on the subject, his frustration is less controlled with each incident.

Here’s the problem: Both solutions fail to restore community, rendering them ineffective.

Brother Jim and I watched three teenagers grow up in my time working with Brothers and Sisters of Love.  The group began with basic theft and rebelliousness. As they got older, the stakes got higher.  One of the group was badly beaten. And then, someone’s brother was shot. What was the reaction? The group acquired a gun, both to protect themselves and to dominate their turf.  One of the three teenagers, now a legal adult, is behind bars with a murder charge. He got there from a flawed but understandable mindset: he felt he needed a gun because his opponent had a gun. He felt the world would not protect him, and he needed to be stronger, have more authority, and be more powerful.

We fail to realize that the street gang mentality of armament is identical to the argument that we should arm teachers, movie theater workers, and citizens far and wide with guns in America to “protect ourselves.” With a gun, it is assumed a person will become equal or more powerful than their potential enemy.  At best we end up in a cold war scenario where no one can be trusted and everyone remains suspicious.  That’s what happens on a good day walking with Brother Jim.  Whenever we approach a new street, the atmosphere is tense, and the neighbors question if Brother Jim is an undercover cop, all eyes on our every move.  At worst, we end up with Chicago’s current murder rate.  Arming a large population of the streets with a gun created that murder rate. Now, the pro-armament party would claim here that they would only give guns to citizens without records.  Gang members also started without records. Specifically, young boys and women without records are initiated and used to commit crimes on gang leaders’ behalf.  They had clean records until they needed to defend themselves and reclaim (or claim for the first time) their power. Gangs exist because their members took matters into their own hands when no one else would solve the problem for them. Acting as if every man and woman must protect themselves because no one else will causes us to the pull the trigger more, not less.  Fear and isolation created the streets. Isolating ourselves behind deadbolts and stockpiling weaponry in fear will have the same effect.

On the other side of the equation, activists claim that gun control will solve our country’s problem by limiting access.  A reporter from Germany spent one summer walking with Brother Jim and I, and one of her missions was to see how easy it was to acquire a gun. Before the afternoon was over, she had several options, and one was even presented in front of her before she could blink.  She was pressured to purchase one quickly, by the very people who lost family and friends to gun violence, in the name of profit.  Time and again as we walked the streets, people who would be found clean after pat-downs with the cops just minutes before could be seen packing heat in a moment’s notice when a threat presented itself. Legal or illegal, guns are everywhere.  If someone truly believes they need a gun to keep themselves safe, they will find the way to acquire one, no matter the law. Fear, and from that fear the need to dominate, dictates gun ownership more than legality. America is too far down the road of excessive gun production combined with a powerful and profitable black market to eradicate them from our everyday lives. Barring a miraculous sense of safety and good will between neighbors, the idea of a legally dictated gun-controlled America is far from realistic. First world countries with successful gun-control laws did not start in the same scenario America finds itself in.

When a reaction involves further isolation or restriction on the perpetrator, it will not help the situation.  Brothers and Sisters of Love lives by the Biblical value that love casts out fear. The inverse is also true. Love is given up quickly to fear, and fear casts out love. I live in a neighborhood that is gentrifying and middle-class do-gooders run with their baby joggers past dilapidated houses surrounded by cops.  The middle-class wants to interact with the poor, and most work in “safe” structures to do so through non-profits and organized community outreach programs, but also call the cops for every minor disturbance, buy home security systems, and build extra high fences. They love the idea of providing food for their neighbor, but they spent significantly less time breaking bread with them when it is not on their terms, or in their control.  Our instinct is to love, but fear stops us in our tracks. We value privacy over community, and security over connectivity. Those we block out with our privacy and security become angry. That anger builds, and will lead to violence, until those wounds of loneliness and deprivation are healed. Genesis tells us “It is not good for the man to be alone.” This can refer not only to marriage, but applies to isolation from community. It is within our own heads that we create the idea that we cannot trust others and that the world is meant to harm us. It is not our original instinct, nor God’s will for our lives.

When we reconnect to humanity, we remember the opposite—what we need to survive is each other, not the extra security laws or the guns. Until we can realize the worth of everyone in the community, victim, perpetrator, and in between, we will continue to face these acts of violence.

–Megan Cottam

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Tragedy of Black Men Killed by Police: Another Point of View

When a police officer fires his gun, it is for one purpose to Kill.  Police officers are trained to fire two bullets into a person’s chest and then one in the head.  It does not matter if the victim is armed or not.  We generally give the police the right to respond the way they see fit.  Yet the pPicture1olice have a history of over-stepping their authority with brutality, extortion, and murder.  So laws set standards which limit what a police officer can do.  Rarely though are police publicly held accountable for their actions.

In his book, The Land, the Biblical Scholar Walter Brueggemann wrote that at the time of Jesus there was a clash of cultures in Israel.  Judaism with its concern for the poor verses Hellenism where an educated elite manipulated the social, religious, and economic systems for their own benefit.

Christians have struggled with this for two thousand years.  Christian theology and philosophy have incorporated both Judaic and Hellenistic Philosophies into its understanding of the world.  While we hold the ideals of taking care of the poor, we also know that getting a good education is key to financial, religious, and social benefits.  We also know two basic facts: the powerful generally make the rules and we limit a portion of our surplus taking care of the poor.

The killings of an unarmed young black men has shown how this plays out in a clash of cultures.  Educated, white, wealthy tend to believe that the killings were justified or at least an honest mistake.  Uneducated, poor, black feel that it is open season on Black men and the system is against them

Most Americans do not exactly fit these categories.  Still it is hard to stand in the shoes of both the officer and victim.  In my experience, most police officers and poor Black men will not be candid with the larger public about how they honestly feel.  They usually say what is self-serving even when it is a lot of crap.  Like it or not both groups are hard to work with.

In reality, inner-city police officers know poor Black males better than the rest of society.  With over 500 murders a year in Chicago, officers know the streets are dangerous and why they are dangerous.  They do not need to be told about society’s ills.

Almost all young men in their teens and early twenties do dumb things.  But for Poor young Black men, the pressures of poverty and the rules of street make life especially dangerous.  My experience tells me that most of the young men embrace the rules of the street.  At least in Latino and immigrant neighborhoods the infrastructures of businesses, jobs, and opportunities are growing.  Poor Black neighborhoods are dominated by blight.

Both sides claim that they are the real victims.  The rest of us take sides or get tired of listening.  So nothing changes.  As long as poor Black men lack opportunities, they will hang out, drop out of school, do illegal activities for income, prey upon the weak, settle their own disputes, go to prison and die early.  The police will clean up the messes, not always well, and be in conflict with the neighborhoods.

If the lives of poor, uneducated, unchurched Black men are as important as everyone else’s lives in our country, what are we going to do about it?  For those of us who claim a Christian identity what does our faith say?  Do young, uneducated, poor, Black, unchurched men get what they deserve for their sins?  Or are we called to find a better way?  Historically Christians, churches, and America have neglected poor, uneducated, unchurched Black mPicture1en.  I do not expect much to change.

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Christmas 2014

For my thirty years in Chicago two points by theologians have haunted me. First, “The Kingdom of God breaks into our lives when we work, love, and learn from the Poor.” (J. Sobrino paraphrased}.  Second, during the time of Jesus, Israel was confronted by a clash of cultures: Hellenism which valued an educated elite who manipulated the political, economic, and religious systems for their own benefit vs. Judaism which valued care for the poor (W. Brueggemann paraphrased).  For years I tested to see if these things were true and I have used them to guide me in my mission with Brothers and Sisters of Love (BS/L).  I have come to believe that if we are seeking the “Kingdom of God,” caring for the poor is a priority.

Lots of people have accompanied BS/L on the streets, almost all of them have been moved by the obstacles faced by the poor and the positive feeling of being with BS/L.  Recently an older gang member said, “Come on Br. Jim, you was scared the first time you came to Cabrini Green.”  I replied, “No I was with Br. Bill and everybody loved Br. Bill. I felt welcomed.”  He answered, “That’s right there is only one Br. Bill.”

Even with “God’s Kingdom breaking in,” working with the poor is not easy.  I enter homes of people facing death, illness, eviction, lack of food, imprisonment, and violence.  The streets are rough, Chicago suffers over 500 murders a year.

This month I visited three friends in jail, all charged with murder.  They all claimed to be innocent, but three people, from three different parts of the city, are dead.  In an interview about one of the murders and I was asked if I was surprised by what happened.  I replied, “I was not surprised. I could feel the underlying tensions.”

Poverty, even American poverty, is destructive.  The non-working poor do not take care of their business,  Too many do not regularly- see a doctor, go to school, vote, speak the truth, or take responsibility for their homes or neighborhoods.  Most of the people I work with are unchurched.  Young people do not even know the Lord’s prayer.  Still when I read the Gospels, I know why so many of the stories of Jesus are with prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, the hungry, and the sick, in other words the poor and sinners. Because it is with them that grace and miracles occurs, in other words the “Kingdom of God” reveals itself.

Last month I visited the sister of an ex-gang member.  She is in hospice with incurable cancer.  She was raised in a church, but lived her adult life as a drug addict.  She was distraught.  She had wanted to turn her life around when she got sick, but failed by continuing to abuse drugs.  She was ashamed and felt she deserved her punishment.  I asked if she could forgive herself.  She wept, “No, I do not know how.”  Eventually, I prayed with her.  On finishing the prayer, she jumped to her feet, began praying in tongues, danced through the apartment, and threw herself to the floor- weeping and thanking Jesus.  I thought, “She is beginning to forgive herself.”  On seeing her since, she’s still preparing for death, but seems to be at peace.

Grace, sin, death, violence, despair, hope, love are all part of the mission of Brothers and Sisters of Love. As I prepare for the Holiday Season, I consider myself blessed to live this mission and feel God’s Kingdom breaking into lives.  Merry Christmas.

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