November 16, 2014

I find myself in a variety of thought-provoking and heart-stirring settings throughout any given week. Because of community meetings, I’m all over Durham listening to people address topics ranging from biblical prayer practices to community organizing against poverty. These folks are poor and rich, Ivy-league educated and educated on the streets, business professionals and unemployed, housed people and homeless people. These folks share insights I often wish all the people I know could hear, so I’ve decided I’ll occasionally share with you some of these quotations, with a little of my own commentary. Here are five quotes worth repeating. Enjoy!


WISDOM FOR ENTERING A COMMUNITY WHEN SEEKING TO HELP: “Come as ‘one of.’ Then you can go from the White House to the crack house and any house in between.” – Man riding the #5 DATA Bus

      Of course, riding the bus is a waste of time, but often it’s a holy waste of time. (I’ll admit I’m betraying my privilege here. It’s easy to say riding the bus is “holy” when I could choose otherwise, when I could be the one determining the time it takes to get from one place to another without having to wait on a bus that may or may not arrive behind schedule. But for someone like myself who can believe easily the myth of self-sufficiency, riding a bus in which I’m dependent on others is definitely holy.) On my best days, when I realize that God is at work everywhere, I attend to people in whatever place I find myself, even in public transit (maybe especially public transit).  And when I listen well, I often learn a thing or two about what it means to be with people.
      The man on the bus knows something of what it takes to build relationships in unfamiliar settings. He spoke of the wisdom of humility. For a person of privilege to enter a place of poverty as “one of” the people, as someone who is no better than those she may think she is going to save (uh hum, I mean serve), a move into a posture near the ground is required. Getting familiar with the dirt, being that low, is what it means to be humble. And whether my typical place of dwelling is as grandiose and powerful as the White House or as middle-class and suburban as my house, traversing the wide divides between varying spheres of power and privilege necessitates a movement of humility—that is how people with and without power and privilege enter a place as “one of.”


A STARTLING TRUTH SPOKEN AT A COMMUNITY MEETING OF END POVERTY DURHAM: “63% of the children in my neighborhood go to bed hungry.” – Camryn Smith of REAL Durham, Communities in Partnership, and Neighborhood Allies, an Old East Durham Resident

      I am angry, ashamed, and convicted by this statement. I am angry that this can be true in a city like Durham, where there are plenty of intelligent, caring, socially-minded people, a surplus of churches, and enough wealth to share. I’m ashamed of our community for allowing it to be true that so many children in a particular neighborhood (maybe not the neighborhood where my or your house is located) go without sufficient food. Somehow we who are so eager to talk about the Durham “where great things happen” too easily miss the atrocity that this statement represents. In a town where the “foodie scene” is acclaimed nation wide, we have neighborhoods where 63%—that’s sixty-three percent, almost 2 out of 3 kids—go to bed hungry each night. I am convicted because my faith calls me to seek the flourishing of my community. And the truth is, I have done so very little work to address the individual and systemic natures of the issues that cause this statement to be true. We must do better! We must build relationships with one another! We must work together for the common good!


BRILLIANT POVERTY ANALYSIS IN ONE LINE AT A COMMUNITY MEETING OF END POVERTY DURHAM: “Poverty is not a natural phenomenon.” – Wilma Liverpool of Faith, Hope, and Justice Ministries

      Wilma Liverpool keeps speaking up wherever she goes against the horror that poverty is to her community. Wilma continually reminds whomever will listen about the historical rootedness of poverty.

      Historical in the sense that 
      it is linked to the long history of racism in America… 
      it is connected to the concrete actions and policies of groups and individuals in the North and the South… 
      it could have been otherwise and still could be otherwise… 

      Wilma’s statement is at one time social, political, and theological. It is a bold claim that God did not create poverty—that poverty is not the natural outcome or biological process of a world created good. Much more could be said, so much more…


WISDOM ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS SPOKEN AT DUKE DIVINITY SCHOOL: “Too much intimacy spoils the criticism. Too much criticism spoils the intimacy.” Dr. Menachem Fisch, Joseph and Ceil Mazer Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Tel Aviv University 

      In a conversation on interfaith dialog, Dr. Fisch referred to this midrash as wise guidance for the tenor of relationships between interfaith conversation partners. This, of course, is good advice for any relationship: from friendships to marriages to community partnerships. A proper balance of critique and closeness keeps people connected while remaining truthful. This balance allows for the dual pursuits of holiness and unity—two callings that must be held in a dynamic tension in the life of faith. It seems this teaching would provide wise counsel for advisory boards for churches, ministry programs, and other nonprofits. 

     With no capacity for intimacy, an organization’s leadership is bound to remain stagnant in the waters of distrust. 
     With no capacity for criticism, an organization’s leadership is bound to remain stagnant in the waters of self-congratulation. 

Both waters erode an organization’s ability to fulfill its mission. Intimacy and criticism: are they both present in the organizations of which you are part?


A LINE FROM A PLAY THAT WILL MOVE YOU: “It wasn’t much. It was just a few inches. But it was enough.” – Closing line from “The Best of Enemies” play at Man Bites Dog Theater in Durham

      If you don’t know the story of Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis, you should spend a few minutes learning about it. The basic story is Ann (a black civil rights activist in Durham) and C.P. (a white KKK leader) joined together to fight for the good of their children and became friends in the process. (I recognize that to tell the story in one line is a GRAND injustice, but you’ll have to read more in another place.) The process by which the two became friends involved both of them moving a few inches at the beginning of their relationship in order to make room for the other. And as each was willing to move a little, it turned out that their movement was enough to come together for the common good and eventually to become friends. 

      What does it mean for you to move a few inches? 
      For whom will you move a few inches to make room for them and their differences? 
      Can you imagine what might happen when moving a few inches is enough?

By Bruce Puckett, Director of Community Ministry, Duke Chapel