Coal to Newcastle

A five-hundred–year-old punchline jabs the pointlessness of sending coal to Newcastle, because Newcastle, in England, actually produced coal and had enough. Sending coal to Newcastle is about pointless gestures.

According to this morning’s Associated Press report, gifts are pouring into Newtown, CT, from around the world. Money, toys, food, whatever. Two-point-eight million so far – that is $2,800,000. “On Saturday, all the town’s children were invited to the Edmond Town Hall in Newtown to choose from among hundreds of toys donated by individuals, organizations and toy stores.”

But Newtown’s median household income is $110,000, 220 percent of the national median. Commuters to Manhattan and elsewhere. Doctors, executives, white collar folks. According to its own website’s economic development fact sheet, Newtown has a total population of 27,000, a poverty rate of 2.2 percent, and ZERO children under age 6 living in poverty. Its housing is 94 percent owner occupied. This is a devastated community, absolutely, but it is not a deprived one. I’m guessing the children had enough toys.

At the risk of seeming heartless and cynical, let me be clear: their heartache wasn’t caused by lack of money. And won’t be fixed by contributions. Money – even large amounts of money – can’t make up for the loss of children.

Meanwhile, in Chicago on Saturday, two children died in a fire. Firefighters tried hard to save them. Two others escaped. The fire was started by a hotplate used to heat the house. Two children dead and Child Protective Services took the other two away. Mom wasn’t home at the time of the fire. But she wasn’t known for leaving the kids alone, neighbors said. Maybe she was working? The babysitter bailed, and Mom left the 7-year-old in charge, maybe taking on an extra shift so she could afford toys for Christmas? At UrbanSpirit, we regularly have groups solve their simulated budgeting and childcare issues by leaving it in the hands of the 8-year-old. Maybe rank-and-file newswatchers are already assuming the worst, ready to blame this mother. Prosecutors are thinking of felony child endangerment charges, according to the CBS affiliate in Chicago.

It is possible that we’ll charge the Chicago mother with neglect. And maybe she is at fault. Or maybe not. Sadly, poverty is a crime in America. When you choose among bad choices, you end up with a bad choice. But we’ll blame her. Then, we’ll put the surviving kids in foster care and pay the foster parents a stipend to care for them. We will NOT send large amounts of cash to her, and maybe we’ll continue to resent the roughly $103 per taxpayer per year (based on the $50,000 median income) that we contribute to things we call “welfare.”

We feel powerless; I get it. And sending money to Newtown is a nice gesture, I guess; makes us feel better. But there are more effective things we could be doing.

We’ll probably have some kind of show of a “national conversation” about gun laws. But we’ve never shown the kind of political will it would take actually to change the laws.

While we’re at it, though, while we’re on the topic of alleviating human misery inflicted by others, let’s have a conversation about regressive taxes, unlivable wages, inaccessible childcare. In Illinois, the average annual cost of infant care is $12,199. The median income for a single mother is $24,833. Illinois has a childcare support program, but does it work? We know that applications and processes can be overwhelming, and changes in work hours or address or income can wreak havoc, and social services are generally the first to get cut when times are tough — indeed draped over the altar of bipartisanship in Washington today. What went wrong here?

Maybe we can also have a national conversation about the state of low-income housing. The building owner in Chicago was “crushed” by the news. “Wind back the tape and a parent could have been in the house, get everyone evacuated and then everyone would be fine,” he said. But, despite his skillful deflection, it is worth asking what shape the rental was in. How was the wiring? The electricity apparently wasn’t shut off (appliances were working), so why were the hotplate and space heater needed? Is the building owner negligent? complicit? Are prosecutors considering charges against him?

One could argue that Newtown doesn’t need the money. Maybe they’ll use it to build a monument, dedicate a park in memory of the children. Maybe they’ll hire more police officers, though they’ve recently been #10 on a “Top 101 Cities” list for numbers of police per 1000 residents. Maybe they’ll establish an anti-gun lobby.

Meanwhile a mom in Chicago cannot afford to bury her dead children, and won’t be trusted to care for the living ones.

There are a lot of conversations to have. But we just keep sending coal to Newcastle.


Something big happened on Friday.

I knew a pastor long ago and far away who wrote his sermons 4-6 months in advance. I wrote mine at 3 am Sunday morning (I had to be in the shower by 6, or I’d miss worship). I “justified” my procrastination by saying I was waiting for the latest word from the Holy Spirit. He defended his by noting that he would drop in relevant cultural references when the time came.

What sort of sermon would have to have been written last August for the massacre of 6-year-olds to be merely a relevant cultural reference?

To the preacher where I was a guest worshipper this week: I’m sorry your sermon was done for the week, but something big happened on Friday and it needed proclamation. The best you could do was a disclaimer on the front end that “evil wins if we allow tragedy to overshadow our Christmas joy”? Really?

I KNOW it was Joy Sunday, pink candle on the wreath and all that. I also know that shit happens. Bad stuff. Evil. Things that cause us great pain. Not even just national events, or international ones. But stuff. Someone died, or was diagnosed, or disappeared, or was driven to despair. Someone we love, or didn’t know at all. Not just once in a while, but EVERY WEEK, daily perhaps. There is always something. So what does it mean to be a preacher, a proclaimer of grace and hope and, yes, joy, in such a world?

Here is my word to you, Preacher, and to whatever readers are paying attention: Proleptic. We talk about something that hasn’t happened yet as if it has. It is the reason we need Advent, and cannot emotionally just leap into Christmas from Halloween or Thanksgiving. Advent is the reminder that what we want most – a world free of pain, despair and all manner of evil, a world transformed by love into a paradise of abundance – is something that we don’t have yet. The “joy” Sunday of Advent is proleptic at best, a muted celebration of something that we are confident is on the way. Like the difference between hearing the announcement of a peace treaty and welcoming your child home from a POW camp. Two very different moments, very different celebrations.

Of COURSE tragedy overshadows the celebration. Of COURSE it dims the joy, and how dare we suggest otherwise.  To glibly go on with our festivities while families mourn is unkind, disconnected. Yes, we eat feasts while others are still starving. We would accept with joy a transplanted organ, but not without remembrance of the family mourning the death that has allowed this life. We receive blessings in context, always in context, and we dedicate ourselves to the building up of a world where suffering is reduced, where blessings are shared, where transformation is complete and joy can be the immediate response.

But we live in Advent; the world is broken, and families are broken-hearted. It is the week of joy, but the joy is the dim promise that it won’t always be this way. Some days the joy is dimmer than others.

Today our candles are hope and solidarity. Something big happened on Friday. Wouldn’t it be nice if it was the last time?

lessons from our past

102_dconrad_02bThis week, researching poverty and family situations in our current economic state, I came across a fairly current collection of stories published by the AP and reported in various blogs. Stories of families devastated by economics beyond their control. American former workers and would-be workers, with degrees and certificates and resumes and dreams and plans and families and hopes. And then, at the end of the reporting, the inevitable commenting.

  • “My plan would make it illegal for able-bodied, working age people, who have received government assistance within 12-months of an election, to vote… you should not be voting and deciding for the rest of us how things are to be ran.””
  • “Get a 2nd or 3rd job and shut up.”
  • “Life aint always easy, man up and get after it.”
  • “Ditto on all the pics of FAT freeloaders! I’ll start feeling sorry for them when they look like a starving child from a 3rd world country.”
  • “Lazy and not too smart, is also an epidemic in this country.”
  • “If they want welfare they should have to read Atlas shrugged every year.” (from a guy known only as Sleazy Hippo.)

But I’m also watching the PBS Ken Burns documentary on The Dust Bowl. Four hours of insight I didn’t have before (plus stunning photography) into the 1930s in the Oklahoma panhandle and the southern plains. I had followed Route 66 as a historical road trip/adventure, and learned a few things along the way. I read a good bit of The Grapes of Wrath, until the damned turtle took an entire chapter to cross the road and lost me (I was in middle school). (I promise to try again.) I knew generally about the dust, the poverty, how hard the depression hit the area. What I didn’t know was that it was a disaster made of human greed and over-reach. Plowing up millions of acres of grassy plains turned out to be a bad idea. It worked out ok as long as there was a wheat market, but when that crashed and the farmers quit planting, then the fields were unprotected. Unrooted. There was nothing to keep millions of acres of dirt from blowing away.

Like the boom, or the housing/mortgage boom. Or other highs in our nations’s history that were followed shortly by bust. As with most of those things, the most vulnerable, the ones feeling the most pain when it is done were the ones with the least control in making it happen.

Roosevelt initiated the WPA, among other things, to help spur the economy, to put people to work, to save the country from ruin. He was criticized as a godless liberal, of course, and the workers were criticized as lazy people leaning on shovels and waiting for a hand-out. (Disclosure: my family has in its history both WPA employment and public assistance.)

Ken Burns quoted the letters of a resident of the place and time, Caroline Henderson, who wrote to Henry Wallace, the secretary of agriculture:

“If mere dollars were to be considered, the actually destitute in our section could undoubtedly have been fed and clothed more cheaply than the work projects have been carried out. But in our national economy manhood must be considered as well as money. People employed to do some useful work may retain their self respect to a degree impossible under cash relief…If we must worry so over the ruinous effects of ‘made work’ on people of this type, why haven’t we been worrying for generations over the character of the idlers to whom some accident of birth or inheritance has given wealth unmeasured, unearned and unappreciated?”

Human dignity counts for something. And I wonder, with all the infrastructure needs our country is experiencing, and the need for jobs we are experiencing, why haven’t we launched a full-scale WPA again? And why do we continue, in every generation, to blame those who are poor?

world on fire

great for decor, not so much for light or heat.

nice decor, but not much light or heat.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve logged about 2500 miles, many of which took me through the cotton mill regions of the Carolinas. (Also, unrelated, I would like to note that, though those miles were mostly in red states, there were an awful lot of people hugging the left lanes.) In antique malls in the textile south, I found groovy industrial spools bearing remnants of generations of piecework. I thought of my grandmother, who worked in a “sewing room,” and what that life may actually have been like. Some I’d seen before – the narrow ones with wide ends, that look like they’d make a great bar table for Barbie. But there were others, tapered, like candles. I figured they would fit in my candlestick holders. I bought a variety to use on my Christmas mantle. Amidst the greens and reds and speckled, they had rich blues and pinks, and I thought for a minute about using them for the Advent wreath. But I decided not. Because they aren’t real candles. Advent begs for fire.

The exodus story came to mind, how God accompanied the wandering people, present in a pillar of fire. In a couple of days, our Jewish neighbors will light the first candles of Hanukkah, remembering the miracle of an ancient revolt; and maybe we’re all reading various prophecies, the stoked rhetoric of revolution. This week in the church I attend, along with Christians all over I guess, we heard the Jesus thing from Luke about signs and distresses and general upheaval. Stuff that makes one faint from fear, says Luke.

We don’t really faint. Only perhaps metaphorically. Maybe. To avoid the dizziness and whatnot, we tell ourselves that faith is private, and public life is, well, public, and ne’er the twain etc. What once was temporal, we relegate to the spiritual. I don’t think we could be more wrong.

One of my favorite Advent hymns, drawn squarely from scripture, notes that, for the fulfillment of God’s vision, new protocols will have to be declared – protocols that, when we are brave enough to look at them up close, look dangerously, uncomfortably, frighteningly, like some kind of God-endorsed socialism. Protocols like that require something much, much more substantial than quaint, fake candles made from nostalgia. Protocols like that could make us actually faint. Or free us from the prisons we’ve created for ourselves.

Of course, fires are not always to be celebrated. Industrial fires in “sewing rooms” across the world have been in the news, with huge losses of life. Sometimes this season, we’re bound to hear about a turkey-frying event that went horribly wrong. Holiday lights that overloaded a circuit and ignited a tree or something. Electrical service that was shut off for non-payment, causing a family to use the gas stove for heat. A bad space heater or old wiring in a poorly maintained rental home. House fires are more common this time of year, and our neighbors in poor communities are more vulnerable for a variety of reasons. So I’m probably not suggesting we actually torch anything. But it isn’t just metaphorical, either. I think we have to ask ourselves and one another: What kind of fire is required to shape our public life and move us to a new vision? Are we brave enough to set that kind of fire?

And when there are fires that we didn’t plan, didn’t set, didn’t see coming, can we learn lessons, take courage, own our complicity and become better local and global neighbors?