silence being golden and all

No. No. NO!

Not again.

Please. Just. Stop.

Remember I said in the beginning that this would sometimes be my shouting place? I’m feeling a rant coming on. Fair warning.

An acquaintance this week posted on facebook that she was remembering her mother’s admonition to speak kindly. “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.” It was to be her theme for the day, she said. Thought it would improve the world. And she made a good case, sort of: “No school bullying, no work place gossip, no racial, religious or homophobic slurs, no Rush Limbaugh or the like, no ‘airing of your dirty laundry’ or derogatory, demeaning comments on FB…” My own mother said it too. And maybe it’s a reasonably good rule for children. Maybe.

But just this week in the news, there have been stories about the income disparity that continues to grow in our country, abetted by politicians enacting laws that favor the wealthy; about health insurance companies lying to customers and trying to trick them into committing to more expensive insurance plans; about phone companies over-charging those in prison, and banks charging fees of $8 and more for the “privilege” of re-loading pre-paid debit cards. A story from the Washington Post told about cities selling off minor tax debt to unscrupulous “investors” who then evict poor people from their long-time homes — their homes being in many, many cases their only asset. One man living with dementia was evicted and stripped of every bit of equity in his paid-off home; after his memories and belongings were removed against his will and without even his understanding of what was going on, he spent the night in a chair on his former front porch. All over a $134 tax bill.

Say-nice-or-say-nothing would leave us painfully mute in such circumstances. What “nice” is there to say about these predators? Silence is complicity, it is refusing to stand up to power, it is staying “in our place,” and being ladylike and not causing a fuss and not rocking the boat and minding our own business and all those other things people have told us we are to do instead of standing brave and tall and saying this is wrong, this is evil.

So, with all due respect to your mom and mine, I disagree. The problem is that the ones who would follow such a rule aren’t the bullies, the limbaughs, the racists and homophobes. The ones who would follow the rule are the ones who should be the anti-bullies, the anti-limbaughs, the anti-racists, the anti-homophobes. I know because I’ve done it. Failed to speak when someone said something objectionable, ignorant, unjust. Failed to speak when “the powers” steamrolled one of us one more time. I’ve also been the one to speak, and then the one blamed when the situation got awkward or contentious. “For heaven’s sake, do you always have to make a scene? does everything have to be political with you?” Yes. If i’m faithful, yes.

But “faithful” needs a bit of dusting off, reconsidering. My friend says she is doing this as homage to Jesus, suggesting that this was his rule as well, that we best emulate him by only say nice things, and she isn’t alone.

The church has taught us this. Through our mamas, and sunday school teachers and children’s sermons and whatnot. The church has also taught us this by its example: the church is way too often way too silent. I’m in the search and call process right now, and reading more than my share of church profiles. It astounds and disheartens me to read all the ways that churches insulate themselves from the brokenness of the world, from the evil that persists and the predatory nature of our national culture right now. From “we don’t talk out loud about politics or that kind of thing” to “we are a family church and want our pastor primarily to engage in community activities like little league games” to “our pastor should visit the sick and preach sermons that help us stay close as a congregational community,” the church is hell-bent, perhaps literally if there is a hell, hell-bent on staying clean of the poison dust of exploitative economic practices and the gear-clogging grime of politics-as-usual.

And we think Jesus told us to do this? to be quiet and just take it?! Politely put, that doesn’t pass the sniff test. Bad theology. Drunk-reading of scripture.

There is nothing Jesus-like about silence, nothing righteous about keeping our mouths shut in the face of despicable, exploitative, predatory, gluttonous behavior. Rather, we would be really wise to follow the trail of power and money, to see who has a stake in our silence. Bet that SOMEONE or something is benefiting from our acquiescence; who is it? Church leaders? Elected officials? Wall Street masters of the universe? The NRA or AARP or CEOs of our biggest corporations? Our mamas didn’t make up that little rule for children; it has been passed down from generation to generation for so long that no one can say for sure who said it first and what they were hoping to gain by making us keep our mouths shut.

But it sure as hell wasn’t Jesus. If he’d just been about saying nice things, no one would have killed him. How do we keep forgetting that?

Advertisements

pleat hooks and parent trap

I was walking through the arts-and-crafts store over the weekend, wandering down the upholstery aisle, admiring printed fabrics and wondering if I had anything that needed a facelift. I didn’t. But as I wandered, looking at all the various hardware and interesting devices, my eye fell on pleat hooks. Pleat hooks? you ask quizzically. Or maybe you know. Yes, I answer enthusiastically. Pleat hooks.

I have no need for pleat hooks, as I have never as an adult chosen drapes designed to require them. But I knew what they were, because my mother taught me how to use them. When I saw them in the craft store, I was suddenly flooded with awareness of things I know about, not because I have degrees, but because my parents told me. Because my parents had time to tell me. Mother taught me to sew and hang drapes and mend things, how to “put up” peaches and get out stains. Dad taught me how to use tools, how to tell the difference between screws and bolts, and how to choose the right washer, and how to countersink the head of a finishing nail, how to change oil and plugs and plug wires. I know about wood grain and selvage edges because Mother’s sewing cabinet and Dad’s workbench were both open for my imagination, with generally only one rule: put it back where you found it. I am thankful for that.

It was a good moment, there in the craft store. I am a generally well-rounded adult (disclosure: that is a self-assessment) with a little bit of knowledge about a lot of things.

It came back to me later, as I was on my back under the kitchen sink, replacing the sprayer on the faucet. I thought about parents who don’t have sewing cabinets or workbenches, who don’t have time because they spend it all at multiple low-wage jobs, with little energy left for their kids when they get home, little resource for anything besides meals, maintenance and a bedtime prayer that somehow, against all odds, tomorrow will be different. Exhausted, stressed and less-healthy-than-average adults who constantly are blamed for their “failures” as parents. They are the people who make our world work, and they are the ones we continually deprive of the riches they more than others work to produce.

I’m telling you this because Nanette wrote a letter this week to the newspaper.

“All the school tax increases, social services, ‘tough on crime’ voters and ‘war on drugs’ money will not make a dent until each parent takes responsibility for his or her own children and raises them correctly.”

(And Nanette gives the impression she knows exactly what “correctly” means.) She goes on:

“It is not the government’s responsibility to feed your child breakfast, lunch and dinner… to read to your child, to stress the importance of education, respect for others, discipline and civility… to provide a stable home environment…. Get yourself up and out of bed every morning, feed your child, use decent language, turn off the TV and video games. Give them structure, routine and discipline. Pay attention to the human being you’ve created. … When each of us does what we’re supposed to do as parents, there will be more than enough room in the jails.”

Wow. Nanette has some strong opinions, and perhaps some anger. But she shows little evidence of understanding. In fact, if all “those people” were to stay in bed next week all on the same day, Nanette would be up a creek. Her life depends on them going to work despite whatever else may be compelling.

I invite her, and you, to enter into someone else’s world for a little while. To put away your presumptions and gain some perspective. Is there an epidemic of lazy, self-absorbed parents who don’t love their kids? Or is there an economic system that operates like a hamster wheel, forcing even the most well-meaning parents to run in place rather than get anywhere? (Shameless plug: UrbanSpirit will help you figure it out.)

Responding offhandedly that “no one helped me and I’m doing ok” is the least helpful approach. Even if that were true (and I’d argue that it is impossible), no one of us can paste our experience onto someone else’s life and assume it is accurate – or even relevant. Entering someone’s reality means honestly, diligently asking and hearing what the barriers are to good parenting and economically healthy households. Then, confessing our complicity in devastation — and pledging to be better neighbors, to do something to change the system.

For those who claim faith, this is really a no-brainer: nearly every faith tradition has sacred texts asserting the importance of upholding the dignity of workers and caring for the poor and vulnerable. Likely including yours.

Style, life.

I style my hair. You may not know it today, and frankly I’m not happy with it, but I do spend time on it. It’s too short right now, but it will grow. It always does.

I have a style of clothing that makes me happy, makes me feel comfortable and confident as I do my daily whatever. It usually includes Birkenstocks. About 13 years ago, pumps and stockings fell by the wayside, no longer a style I was willing to deal with. I do still wear suits. And black Birks and flip-flops for dress-up. (They go well with clergy collars.)

My home has a style. Across the pine living room floor, an old 8-foot shutter leans against one wall; a black window screen from a much earlier era hangs on a different wall – next to the charred oak lid from a Four Roses bourbon barrel; a bowling pin signed by my high school teammates is on a bookshelf, along with a marching band hat, a wooden shoe-form, spindles from an out-of-production textile mill, a hurricane lamp filled with buttons, and several small flower vases in the shape of dogs or antique cars; there’s an ancient mirror that used to be on someone’s dresser now resting on the andirons to cover the fireplace in the off-season, and in the wine rack are scarred rolling pins that once belonged to someone’s great-grandmother. In the middle of the floor is a long-retired and fairly squeaky railroad cart, gray with age and – some would say – begging to be restored. I like it better unrestored.

Old, worn, used, perhaps unkempt. This is my style.

This is the busy season at UrbanSpirit. Groups from other places have come to Louisville for an experience, a simulation, of life in poverty in America. They are well-meaning, out of their comfort zones, encountering realities they never knew existed, discovering causes and consequences they couldn’t have imagined. And they are struggling for words. Trying to put language to such an unbelievable state of existence. I appreciate their efforts. And one day I’ll be excited to vote for one of them, the candidate who can see something new and isn’t afraid to pursue it. But in their struggle and ours, there is a word I would like to banish.

“Lifestyle.”

Poverty isn’t a lifestyle.

Lifestyle suggests preference, taste, choice, options. Lifestyle is about whether to buy porcelain or pottery for your everyday dishes; lifestyle is whether to go camping or stay in 4-star B&Bs for vacation. Whether to tailgate at the stadium or hang out in a sports bar – or eschew sports altogether and take up knitting. Lifestyle is about cashing in your split-level ranch and moving to a condo in a high-rise. Downsizing so you can travel more, deciding to move to a city where you can take the train instead of owning a car. Lifestyle is vegetarian or pantheistic or community garden or philanthropic. Lifestyles are subject to change, to whims, to trends.

Lifestyle is voluntary. Even if you prefer picking foods from dumpsters, buying clothes from consignment stores, and bartering for babysitting, if you choose to live this way, this is lifestyle.

Poverty is not a choice. In fact, poverty is lack of choice. Social mobility is a huge problem in America. People born poor tend to stay poor, held there by myriad social policies and political agenda. Our simulation participants learn the very difficult lesson that poverty is not merely lack of ambition or a poor work ethic. Despite their creativity and effort, they are knocked around and tripped up by a system that doesn’t much give a damn. As I’ve argued before, the “system” depends on poor people, thrives on poor people; the system – the ‘American Dream’ for some – requires there be poor people in America to do the jobs that we need but don’t want to pay a lot to have performed.

Lifestyle? Living every day uncertain of food, shelter, employment, health?
Lifestyle? Sleeping poorly at night worried about what the next day will bring to shatter the fragile equilibrium or undo the tiny step forward you’ve somehow made?
Lifestyle? Knowing that people are blaming you, demeaning you, sacrificing you for their own comfort?
Lifestyle? Living with hopelessness, having no reason to believe that anything will ever be different?

Worn, used, perhaps unkempt.

Not a lifestyle. Not even much of a life.

tipping out

Did I ever mention I used to work in a bar? When I was in school, I was a busser and barback at Petticoat Junction in Austin. I mostly enjoyed the work. I met strong and beautiful women, learned to two-step, and was quite entertained by closing-time Patsy Cline impersonations when Philip, the bartender, would stand on the bar and let it loose.

Life as a barback is about washing glasses, slicing limes, making sure the liquor rack is always full; in my case, it included recording tax numbers off empty bottles to keep Texas ABC happy. The pace can be unrelenting. I was paid minimum wage, but each evening the bartenders would thank me by sharing their tips – “tipping out.” They each put 10 percent into a pile, then divided it among us who didn’t get tipped. It was rarely more than $5-8. For me, it afforded the luxury of joining the other employees for breakfast at Katz’s Deli after closing time. (“Katz’s Never Kloses.”) For others, it was bigger, a few gallons of gas in the car or making the rent.

I mention this, not because I’m feeling nostalgic, but because in Louisville, the practice of tipping out has been in the news. Servers at iconic Lynn’s Paradise Café claimed they were fired for refusing to bring large amounts of their own cash to work, cash that they said they were required to share with bussers, food runners and others. Today the news is that servers at another place, Doc Crow’s Smokehouse and Raw Bar, have filed a lawsuit claiming they were forced to share tips. For the record, Kentucky law prohibits restaurants from requiring this.

It is ironic that this issue is arising among the lowest paid workers in the country. According to a 2012 special report by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, food workers face higher levels of food insecurity than the rest of the U.S. work force, and use food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the workforce. One in 6 Americans works somewhere in the food industry, and 7 of the 10 lowest paying jobs are in direct food service.

“I earned it myself, I’m keeping it” is a myopic epidemic in America, but it hardly is about waiters. We are regularly reminded that those with wealth earned it all by themselves. Truth is, everything we do, every bit of low level work performed by the untrained or unlucky or unwealthy – or those happy enough to wash glasses and slice limes, or to order doughnuts for the next board meeting, or type, file, guard, repair, stock, sort, deliver, drive or clean – every bit of it contributes to the wealth of the wealthy.

Perhaps business owners could take a look at their own ledgers. Instead of insisting on profit-sharing among those at the economic bottom, instead of enjoying the fruits of regressive corporate tax policies or employment laws, they could engage in profit-sharing WITH those employees,.

I applaud Kentucky Jobs with Justice and the Service Workers for Justice for bringing this issue to light. There’s a lot of sharing that needs to happen; let’s not be deluded into thinking it should begin with the ones who work for tips.

Redneck Central

You know I love antique malls and flea markets. I love browsing through rusty, dusty piles of cool stuff from earlier eras. Wash it down, call it vintage, and make your house feel more like home. Sometimes the stuff isn’t actually old; it is someone’s art or craft, made from found whatevers, but likewise hoping to barge into my heart and home. I tend to wander past this stuff. No judgment; it just isn’t usually what I’m looking for. Lately, I’ve noticed the escalating assault of crafts bearing the name ‘redneck.” Redneck windchime made of beer cans; redneck wineglasses made of mason jars; you get the idea. An entire industry is developing around the use of toothpicks, shotgun cartridges, peanut shells and hub caps.

Maybe it’s just me, and maybe I’m being overly sensitive, but this makes me really uncomfortable.

It isn’t just about arts and crafts. A pastor I was in conversation with recently referred to a place as “redneck central.” He wasn’t talking about a flea market or craft shop; he was talking about a neighborhood. Redneck Central. You can even substitute the word “hillbilly” for “redneck.” How short a leap is it after that to the term “white trash”? Sadly, I still hear that phrase as well, white trash, used to describe actual people, generally people living in poverty, people whose choices and opportunities don’t align with ours, people who are nonetheless our brothers and sisters.

Folks who could not imagine hurling racist slurs, who long ago quit saying “queer,” are still okay calling someone “redneck.” Why is that? Am I wrong to think the intent is pretty much the same? What are we really saying?

At UrbanSpirit, we begin every program week talking about the power of language. It matters how we talk to or about people living in poverty, living in the aftermath of conviction and incarceration, living on the fringes of what we call “normal,” “acceptable,” “honorable.” Words are codes sometimes forcing our hearers to draw conclusions, to ride the undercurrent of our meaning. And if they disagree, we say we didn’t mean it, we were kidding, they took it wrong, whatever.

I know there are people who describe themselves as “redneck.” Like black rappers who use the n-word and gay activists who use “dyke” or “queer” to identify themselves, they siphon honor from painful historical realities. Each of us has the privilege of describing ourselves in whatever way we choose. The problem rises when we assign words to others, words that bear our own unnamed ignorance, fear and disdain. I did not get the impression that the pastor who called the place “redneck central” was hoping to move there.

So, why didn’t I say something?

taxes and churches: time to talk?

The ministry center I run, UrbanSpirit, used to own a church building. A big, old church building, with, um, issues. Not the least of the issues were the beasts that constantly set off the motion detectors — spider webs, a rattling door. My cat Beckett, which is how I came to adopt him. The alarm system also warned of actual intruders. It was these the alarm was intended to guard against. The problem was there were way too many of the other things. In the beginning, the alarm company would call the police, and I would meet them there, sometimes deep into the wee hours, fearful of what we may find. Most times it was nothing, but sometimes it was something. Either way, I was awfully happy the police were willing to be the ones to figure it out. Eventually, the police department began charging a fee for false alarms — not just us, but folks all over the city. You get one or two freebies, and then you pay. First $25, then $100, I think. I’m not exactly sure of the fee scale.  I thought about being annoyed by this, or trying to appeal. And then it hit me. As a church, we pay no property taxes, so this fine is our way of supporting the work our community protectors do. I began to think of all the other things we get free — lights and streets, bad weather alarms. We had a fire once, and no one sent us a bill for the firefighters’ effort, or the truck time, or depreciation on the equipment, or for the water, which came from a hydrant and wasn’t on our meter. We get a lot of stuff absolutely free. Because we are a church. Are we worth it?

This Sunday, I’ll be leading a discussion at a local church about churches and taxes. I prepared a sheet of info as a discussion prompt. It isn’t a research paper, and all the numbers may be wrong. But it seems worth conversation in a time of stretched government budgets, whether the church is sucking communities dry or providing in-kind value that is way more than the exemptions. The discussion page is below, and you’re welcome to use it for discussion in your own congregation. I’d love your comments here, which certainly would enrich the conversation I’m about to have at church this Sunday.

The church, we say, is all about justice. What is just in this regard? And since no one is likely to change the exemption laws anytime soon, the question for clergy and churches is, as always, what kind of neighbors are we?

hoping for your thoughts…

Taxes and churches… Who’s Zooming Whom