February 27, 2015

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!

A STRIKING RE-VISIONING OF THE VALUE OF PEOPLE IN MATERIAL POVERTY: “The people living in material poverty, we call them leaders.” – Aidil Ortiz Hill, REAL Durham, at the Durham Congregations in Action Annual Meeting.

      REAL Durham’s vision of people living in material poverty strikingly departs from common perceptions of people who are poor. Studies show that many view people living in material poverty as being lazy, uneducated, unmotivated, and more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. Instead of calling people in material poverty any of these things, REAL Durham calls them leaders. To me, this sounds remarkably similar to Jesus words from Luke 6:20, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” 
      REAL Durham operates using the principles of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD). ABCD’s core principles provide a helpful method for reorienting your understanding of people who live in material poverty. The ABCD model encourages a different view of people who are typically understood as being “needy.” Instead of looking at what is lacking with a person or within a community, this approach encourages consideration of what is already present—what gifts, talents, skills, and capabilities folks already have—and working from there. To say the glass is both half full and half empty acknowledges the needs present, but does not make the needs the entire story.
      The glass of water analogy can help us more when thinking about what it might take to say Ms. Ortiz Hill’s words. When looking at a glass from above, we may be more likely to notice the part that is missing. When looking at a glass from below, we’ll be more likely to notice the part that is full. This surely is a call to humility, to begin relationships with those who live in material poverty from a location near the ground, maybe even on our knees. Then maybe we will also say, “The people living in material poverty, I call them leaders.”


A MISSPOKEN WORD THAT SPOKE SOMETHING DEEPLY PROFOUND: “If you know a family in material wealth who might benefit from these relationships, we would love to hear from you.” Aidil Ortiz Hill, REAL Durham, at the DCIA Annual Meeting.

      Ms. Ortiz Hill also invited those who were present to consider inviting their networks to participate in REAL Durham as volunteers, allies, or leaders. At the point in the presentation when she discussed potential leaders, she mistakenly said “material wealth” instead of “material poverty,” the implication being that people in material wealth would benefit from relationships across class lines. As it turns out, this was a holy misspeaking. It is an uncommon wisdom to recognize that people in material wealth would benefit from relationships with the materially poor. This is as true from a Christian perspective as it is from some other perspectives. I won’t quote the ubiquitous scriptures about God’s concern and love for the poor, Christ’s presence with and in the poor, or about relating to the “least of these,” but you can imagine how these might tell a similar story about why this misspoken word emphasized a holy truth.


A CALLING TO PRAYER FROM THE SUPERINTENDENT OF DURHAM PUBLIC SCHOOLS: “As a person of faith, I urge you to join us. I want you to pray for our children. I want you to pray for our teachers.” Dr. Bert L’Homme, DPS Superintendent, at the DCIA Annual Meeting.

      I will not add much more to this call to pray. But I want to note two things. First, it is incredibly powerful that the superintendent would call people of faith, and his sisters and brothers in Christ, to pray for our schools. Knowing some of the struggles that face our public schools, this is a call that must not go unheeded. Second, it’s important to recognize that praying involves our bodies and the bodies of our children. (More to be said about this shortly.)


A WORD OF CHALLENGE ABOUT THE PARTICIPATION OF FAITH COMMUNITIES IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS: “You are welcome. Not only are you welcome, we expect you there.”  Dr. Bert L’Homme, DPS Superintendent, at the DCIA Annual Meeting.

      At the DCIA Meeting, Dr. L’Homme introduced an initiative called “Read and Feed” that partners local faith communities with elementary schools in or near their neighborhoods. These partnerships focus on tutoring and assisting with the weekend food needs for students from low-income families. This initiative is based on a successful relationship between Epworth United Methodist Church and Hope Valley Elementary School, where a local church took the initiative to care for the school in its neighborhood. While your church may not plan to begin a tutoring outreach ministry or participate in the “Read and Feed” initiative, Dr. L’Homme’s words encourage people of faith to find some way to be present in Durham Public Schools. Not only are we welcome, we are expected! And in as much as we pray for the schools with our words, we must also pray in our daily actions.  Embodied prayers such as those prayed in silence or aloud while sitting with someone learning to read are prayers that connect with God and neighbor. And these prayers we must learn to pray.


WORDS OF HOPE, INSPIRATION, AND THANKS SPOKEN AT HOUSING FOR NEW HOPE CELEBRATION: When people are given opportunities and are provided resources to succeed, “They will have hope and use hope as a catalyst." Frank Moore, Honoree at Housing for New Hope Milestone Celebration
"They stepped up and showed out." Charissa Jones, Honoree at Housing for New Hope (HNH) Milestone Celebration

      This is a two for one on my five quotes worth repeating. Two recipients of Milestone Awards at the Housing for New Hope Milestone Celebration shared these words of inspiration and thanks. Being part of Housing for New Hope’s Milestone Celebration was one of the most awe-inspiring, hope producing, joyful, and encouraging events I’ve recently experienced. 
      I mentioned at the service that these formerly homeless men and women were receiving honors where many Duke students have received graduation honors in the past. Both kinds of celebrations fittingly fill the hallowed space of Duke Chapel. Both represent obstacles overcome, challenges met, failures and successes. Yet, what I recognized in the Milestone Celebration was a deep joy born out of overwhelming trial, crushing despair, and pain each of the Milestone recipients had experienced. Of course, this celebration is a way of honoring those who are continuing through the struggles of everyday life—struggles to stay housed, employed, sober—so in a way, this celebration is for the purpose of inspiring continued hope. And as Mr. Moore said, people will “use hope as a catalyst.”
      Folks like Ms. Jones and Mr. Moore understand that they have not accomplished their successes without the care and support of others. So they talk about how HNH “stepped up and showed out” and are overwhelmingly grateful. I marveled at the way deep humility accompanied their sense of self-accomplishment. This was no doubt born out of recognition that overcoming great obstacles does not happen alone. Though this point is no less true regardless of life experience, for those who’ve lived their lives in privilege, this point is all too often missed. Maybe hearing from others, like Ms. Jones and Mr. Moore, is what it’s taking for me to understand better how my best accomplishments have not been achieved alone. Maybe if Duke Chapel has the honor to host this event again, you will take time to listen to and learn from these voices as well.

By Bruce Puckett, Director of Community Ministry, Duke Chapel