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Déjà vu

I was looking through an old notebook of mine from 2001.  I found an article I saved dated 9/01/2001.  I wonder if this matter may not have received a little more attention in 2001 had we been spared the tragedy of 9/11.  Regardless, the article is by Sarah Anderson and Chris Hartman and distributed by the KRT News Service:

“As Labor Day approaches, workers are getting pink slips while executives are getting bonuses.  Job cuts have hit a 10-year high, and CEOs are rewarding themselves for causing such hardship.  Of 52 U.S. companies that laid off more than 1,000 workers this year, the chief executive officers at these firms earned an average of $23.7 million in total compensation . . . During the 1990s boom, most investors didn’t bat an eye over exorbitant CEO pay levels.  Few seemed to care how much these guys (sic) earned, as long as the stock market continued to climb.  Since the bulk of CEO compensation came in the form of gains from stock options, many people figured these executives would rake it in only as long as everyone else did.  However, as signs of the economic slowdown emerged, many CEOs managed to insulate themselves.  The 52 layoff leaders . . . received 20 percent raises in salaries and bonuses last year.  Meanwhile, average wage workers received a pay increase of only 3 percent in 2000, and salaried employees got about 4 percent.  Economic inequality in our country is rapidly growing.  Executive pay jumped 571 percent between 1990 and 2000 while growth in worker pay—37 percent—barely outpaced inflation.  Here’s one way to put the increase in CEO pay in perspective: If the minimum wage, which stood at $3.80 an hour in 1990, had grown at the same rate as CEO pay over the decade, it would now be $25.50 an hour, rather  than the current $5.15 an hour.  If the average annual pay for production workers had grown at the same rate since 1990 as it has for CEOs, these workers would have earned $120,491 instead of $24,668 in 2000.  The growing gap between CEO and worker pay would be less worrisome if workers at the bottom of these firms made enough to make ends meet.  A new study by the Economic Policy Institute shows that 29 percent of working families don’t earn a living wage.  More than 70 percent of these experience real hardships, having to skip meals, rent payments and medical care . . . Labor day is a reminder that all of us—not just the CEOs of our largest corporations—contribute to the economy.  And let’s honor that contribution by helping those who are left behind, and by curbing the vast inequalities that so offend our basic American value of fairness.”

This Labor Day, thirteen years later, nothing has changed.  In fact, in significant ways, matters are worse by both measures of extreme concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer persons as well as the expanding challenges and despair of hard working Americans.  American Labor is not sharing in the productivity of the U.S. economic engine despite significant increases in labor productivity.  Furthermore, do not be deceived, the effects of this unfair and unjust distribution of wealth are creeping up the income ladder.  The supposed financial security of the solid middle and upper middle class is eroding too.  In another thirteen years, barring real change in this pattern of unjust and unlivable wages in our country, I believe we will find ourselves celebrating Serf Day.   

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What do you want with me? Much.*

homeless_mother_children

**It is Wednesday night and I am leaving the church late to go home.  As I head up the driveway toward Walnut Street, I notice the line for the Food Pantry extends all the way up to the street.  As a group, they look forlorn standing in the fading light and dropping temps.  I am glad we are here for them.  Near the end of the line, there is a young woman holding hands with two little girls.  A third child, boy or girl I cannot tell, is standing on the fence wall.  Unexpectedly, in my mind’s eye, I see Guytie and our three daughters standing there.  As with the Ghost of Christmas Past, it is like a scene from my distant past playing out in a painfully unexpected way.  My eyes tear up and I want to move on as quickly as possible . . . I do not look back . . . I try not to feel the confused emotions penetrating me like a cold, damp fog.  I drive home profoundly sad.  I do not know the woman or her children; yet, my heart breaks with the sight of this small family, cold, hungry, and waiting to get food–in the darkness, my family. 

Several years ago, the leadership of the Food Pantry first proposed the idea of opening on Wednesday nights.  During our daytime pantry hours, our clients would tell us of people they knew who worked but could not make ends meet with the low wage jobs they were able to get.  They were hungry and needed our assistance was the message we heard.  The Food Pantry leadership requested and we agreed to a trial run.  Now, several years later, Wednesday night is as busy as our daytime pantry.  While we do not have demographic documentation yet (something we are hoping to work on this year), we are confident from anecdotal reporting that many of these Wednesday pantry clients are working people often with multiple jobs-and still, they need help feeding their families.

What is it the Lord requires of you . . .

                                     Do justice . . . (Micah 6.8)

It is a good thing we do in our Food Pantry.  People are hungry; children are hungry.  It is a good thing to feed hungry people; but it is not justice, it is mercy.  Justice challenges us to ask, “Why are these people who work, sometimes two and three jobs, unable to feed themselves?  Why must they stand in line in the cold and dark in order to receive the small bit of help we offer them in order to avoid hunger for themselves and their families? What is wrong with this picture?” Justice challenges us to action and change.  What must change to allow justice to flow like a river(Amos 5.24)?  In 2013, we served about 2200 people each month through our food pantry.  By storage and financial limits, we are perilously near our maximum service capacity.  Feeding the unemployed, the homeless, and the elderly is one thing, but why do working people, some working 60+ hours a week, still need our assistance?  In the US, full-time workers should be capable of paying their own way and caring for their family needs, or so the prevailing myth of the American Dream suggests.  Tonight, as I drove from the parking lot to Walnut Street, that Dream seemed tarnished and more difficult to imagine.  Tonight I saw my wife and daughters standing in the cold dark waiting for food–it hurt my heart.  Maybe it takes the sting of personal “hurt” to understand what it is the Lord requires of me!

*Title: an exchange between Scrooge and Marley

** This is a re-run of an earlier, pre-blog piece.  I want to make it a part of my blog record.

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Someone like you

little girl at soup kitchen 2

It is a cold and blustery day, the temps hovering around “freeze your buns off.”  The visitors to  Kansas City Community Kitchen (a ministry of Episcopal Community Services) for the daily hot lunch are a bit slow coming in, allowing more time for interaction and brief bits of conversation with the people as they come through the food line.  There is a broad assortment of people, some clearly in need of a hot meal and others passing through checking their options.   Fashion statements are made, some in spite of poverty and others because of poverty.  One young man wears many  layers of clothes year round; though he looks very large as he passes through the line, I wonder if he might actually be skinny once peeled out of clothes I suspect never leave his body.  Some are noisy and boisterous, others pass  quietly, deep in their own thoughts, hardly noticing our presence as we try to welcome them, offering our clever quips for the day.  Some reciprocate while others look at us like the foreigners we are, inarticulate in the language and understanding of the street.  Here, I am an alien.  Still, I come back each fourth Monday, offering in some small and inadequate way my allegiance to this gift of mercy—a good, hot meal in a safe place.  Luckily for me, the clients are tolerant.

As they pass through the line I almost miss the tiny little girl ( maybe 3 or 4) accompanying the very young man (early 20’s) in an over-sized sport logo jacket.  She peeps over the serving line, her grimy little  hands gripping the metal rail and her big brown eyes sparkling as she sees the food.   Some attempt to brush her blondish brown hair failed ; it is dirty, matted, and knotted but it is out of her face.  Her eyes carefully follow the tray to the end of the serving line.  I am not sure she really believes the food is for her.  The young man, I assume her father, takes the tray and walks her to the table directly opposite the serving line.  They sit down and she eats her food, every morsel.  No whining and complaining that the food is too hot or too cold, or the food tastes funny, or not what she wanted.  This little girl eats everything and scraps the tray clean.  The young man, sitting close beside her, wraps his arm around her.  Occasionally, she turns and whispers something into his ear.  He softly answers and she goes back to eating.  Americana right out of Norman Rockwell except, of course, for the hues of poverty that distort everything.

At one point, a very tall and menacing looking old man comes and stands at the far end of their table.  His face weathered, his long, blond hair dirty, his overly long arms dangling by his side, his parka and clothes filthy and beyond worn out.  He stands quietly, staring at the little girl as she and her dad stare down at their food, watching attentively lest a crumb attempt to escape.  He stands there without moving for a long, long time.  I am beginning to get a little uncomfortable, wondering if this fellow harbors some malevolent intent, just waiting for the right moment to grab the little girl and run.  After what seems way too long, the little girl glances up and their eyes meet.  He extends a hand and awkwardly  flips something toward her.  It rolls to her tray.  It is a Tootsie Roll Pop.  She picks it up, looks back at the man, and smiles.  No words.  He turns and walks away.  Surprised by the rough tenderness of his action, I imagine him yearning for something long lost but remembered in this small gesture of  generosity to a tiny little girl.

The last stragglers are being hustled out of the dining area.  The floors swept, the chairs put up in anticipation of the mop brigade coming out to clean the place for the next day.   We fed the hungry.  It is time to leave.  I wonder where this young father and his little girl go when they leave here?  Where will she go, what chances will she have? Sadly, I am sure “Oh the Places You’ll Go” is not on her nighttime reading list.

Driving away, I recall another Dr. Seuss text from “The Lorax”–“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

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Another blue sky

baseball

I am listening to this on the radio while driving home in yet another snow.  I first heard Sam’s song ( link below) one summer Saturday on my way to do services at St. Paul’s.  The combination of Sam’s oddly soulful voice and the intensity of the memories and feelings his song resurrect in me is powerful .   The rich, earthy smell of a well oiled mitt, the clear blue sky, the rustling of the cicada wings all around, the dusty ball field, the poetry of body and bat swinging to met arm-launched ball and the crack of ball and bat connecting, the arc of possibility as the ball threads the air,  the dads in fatigues or khakis and moms in cotton dresses cheering in the stands as we played the summer game–All this comes charging up from the deep synapses, long dormant stories shoving their way into my present moment.  Maybe an endorphin rush, but as near to perfection as childhood memories can be.  Things were not always great in my family.  Dad and I did not always agree; sometimes the best we could hope for was to agree to disagree civilly.  But on the ball field, everything was different.  On the ball field magic happened, for father and son.

Sam’s song is nostalgic and simple.  In my youth, just before Vietnam became serious (Gulf of Tonkin), we never thought much about the “way of harm” attached to the soldiers.  In my memories, they were just our dads sitting in the stands in hard-pressed khakis or olive drab, cheering us on . . . yet I know some soon died and left their children to play the game alone*.   Still “another Saturday comes and goes . . . another baseball field . . . another bunch of boys and another blue sky . . . boys laugh, boys play.”  Yet, comes the sadness, comes the sorrow.

Oddly, I am not left in sorrow or sadness; Sam’s song leaves me hopful.   Always “another blue sky.”   Possibility and hope, if I embrace them, come and with them comes the laughter, comes the play . . . comes another blue sky.

*Sadly, something much more real  to the military brats of today who endure the repetitive deployment of their parents thanks to questionable political policies of constant war.

There is an amazing story about the artist, Sam Baker, and more of his great music; but you are going to have to find that on your own.

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Ash Wednesday

Image

It is a new day in the church.

No, I am not talking about Christology or Pnematology, high church or  low church, or even wafer or real bread . . .  I am talking about the age-old question, “Hey Father Stan, is that dirt on your forehead?”  For years, I have known this question was coming on Ash Wednesday and I am always prepared with an age appropriate response, trying, in 25 words or less, to convey the full content of our salvation history, church calendar, and this ancient liturgical practice to the person who asks {Sidebar: I prefer this question  come from children; they are always more willing to accept the ambiguity of my compact response}.   Without fail, each year it comes and each year I am ready.

It is a new day.

This morning, I led 3 and 4 year-old chapel at our school.   Chapel followed soon after the early morning Ash Wednesday liturgy, so, of course, I had ashes in the shape of a cross on my forehead.  One of the teachers asked me if I was ready to explain the ashes.  With great confidence and the certain knowledge of my past competency in this matter, I replied, “If asked, I am ready!”

I didn’t have to wait long . . .

“Hey Fr. Stan,” the cute little girl with curly auburn hair, freckles,  a brightly colored smock, and stripped leggings called out, “is that a tattoo on your forehead?”

—-long pause—-

Not the question I was prepared to answer.  It is a new day.

Next year, I will be prepared, “Yes, let me tell you about chrismation and the “tattoo” that shows up once a year”

(note: I was asked about the ashes on my forehead three separate times as I visited with children at chapel this morning.  All three times they wondered, “Is that a tattoo?”  It is a new day!)

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