Catching up

Wow, it has been a busy few weeks post-40 Days in Orange!  Trying to play catch up while still thinking about what’s next is a hard balance to find.  And to be honest most of what I have been up to is on the catching up side of things.  However, I did have the honor and privilege to write a guest column for the Waco Trib – “Are we a nation of second chances when it comes to those with criminal pasts?”  I will continue with some updates soon as we move forward with our advocacy for those who have worn and continue to wear the real prison orange.  And of course, email me at 40daysinorange@gmail.com if you want to get involved in any way!  Stories, ideas, commitment, questions, resources, you name it, let’s start talking!

Be Life in places of death!

Bittersweet

Greetings friends.  I have had several people ask me what it has been like the last few days, post-40 Days in Orange.  There have definitely been some sweet spots.  No more orange is pretty nice (see pics below for the official “shedding”).  However, I really don’t like having to pick out clothes everyday!  Having felt like I was on a marathon sprint for the past 40+ days, I gladly welcomed the rest the last few days.  Rest from writing.  Rest from explaining myself.  Rest from the glances, glares, and stares.  Rest from stigma.

And herein lies the bitter part.  I really miss it in so many ways.  My journey in orange blessed me in ways that were deeply meaningful and transformative.  I will miss those challenges that have made me stronger.  I began to understand things about Jesus’s story and about God’s presence among us that I had never thought of before.  All because I walked on the margins for a while, as one of them, the despised and oft-forgotten.  Even though it wasn’t real and I could explain myself and take it off at anytime, wearing the orange prison uniform gave me an opportunity to listen to the songs of the oppressed in ways I could never hear and experience as a white male with a middle-class, professional background.

Add to the personal formation the opportunity to speak truth on behalf of the poor and oppressed.  What an honor and a privilege.  Imagine a time when you were able to stand up for a friend or family member in a situation where they really needed you and couldn’t perhaps speak for themselves.  That’s what it was like for me.  The marginalized and imprisoned are like friends and family to me.  I love them dearly.  Their beauty and grace transform me.  I see how their afflictions often stand in the place for my comforts.  The least I can do is speak truth for them, about them, and most especially with them, any time I have a chance.  To allow for my “story” to point beyond to the stories that really matter, for those who truly suffer, was a blessing I cannot begin to describe.  I will forever be grateful for my 40 Days in Orange.

But I don’t want it to end.  It should not end.  The suffering of the poor and oppressed, the marginalized and imprisoned, the despised, cast aside, and dehumanized never ends.  Not in this life, at least.  So I have been thinking about, praying, and listening for ways to keep this experience alive.  I would gladly welcome your thoughts and suggestions.  Email me at 40daysinorange@gmail.com.  Here are some ideas from my community of support:

  • I will be writing a guest editorial in the Waco Trib to use my experience to highlight the need for jobs not jails and call for Waco-McLennan County to adopt Fair Chance Hiring Policies, in both public and private employment.
  • I can share a draft Fair Chance Hiring Policy with anyone interested in advocating in your local community for a policy that makes sense for everyone involved.  See Days 13, 14, 15, 18, 19, 20.
  • “You have to write a book”, I was told.  So maybe someone can help me figure this out!?
  • I would gladly come to speak with your church, civic group, community organization, school, or other groups.  I thrive on dialogue and believe this is the space where together we figure out what to do!
  • Connect with other advocacy groups already doing the hard work around these issues.
  • Keep wearing the orange?!  And keep blogging.
  • Start a movement of orange-clad advocates!?  This idea has been discussed with me by a handful of people.  We would need to really discuss the ramifications, identify our purpose, and be proactive in reaching out to the communities where folks join the movement.  If anyone is interested in joining this conversation, please email me at 40daysinorange@gmail.com
  • What else?!  Send me ideas!!!  Let’s keep the conversation going, the pot stirred, and the lived experiences of the poor and oppressed at the forefront of who we are as people, communities, and a nation.

    As My servant you will do even more than this,
        even more than restoring My family to Me
    And making the nation right with Me again.
        I will make you a light for the nations,
    And You will illumine them until My healing love reaches to the ends of the earth.    Isaiah 49

photo 1 photo 2

photo 4 photo 3

 

Day 40

Wow.  Last day.  Hard to believe.  What a journey.  And it ended with such a bang.  Are you serious, the New York Times?!  So blessed to carry the message of love and hope and life and redemption and beauty among the poor and marginalized as far as anyone will take it.

But I never would have imagined when I began this journey 40+ days ago that I would end it with a photo shoot.  Putting on the orange uniform, I never thought some of the last experiences would make me feel like a model.  Hold that pose.  Oh, that’s a good light.  Could you walk through that again?  HAHA.  Seriously, though, my time with the New York Times writer, Jesse Wegman, and freelance photographer, Dylan Hollingsworth, was another experience of this journey that I will cherish for a long while.  Two more kindred spirits helped spread this message of love and justice.  And both from very different backgrounds and experiences.  Yet we found ourselves at the same places, with the same desires for a better world, striving for new life for every single one of us.  Thank you Jesse and Dylan for sharing this journey with me.

But I have to admit, as honored as I was to have the New York Times cover this story, there were three other experiences just yesterday that made everything over the last 40+ days more than worth it.

In the local grocery store, photographer following me, I hear a “You just get out of prison?!” as I am reaching for the coffee creamer.  I turn to see Roddy standing there laughing.  So I begin to explain to him.  He cuts me off.  “I know what that is.  I have been there.”  So I tell him why I am actually wearing it.  I get to shake his hand.  He tells me some of his story.  He is now working with the formerly incarcerated.  We share our thanks to each other for doing what we are doing.  I feel most honored to wear the orange for my new friend, Roddy.

Later that day while playing in the backyard, I got a phone call from Homar.  What a blessing to speak to him in person!  This man is on fire for his faith.  He thanked me for what I am doing.  He shared that so many of the guys in prison with him and their families, from all over the place, have heard my story, and they are so grateful for my message.  I told him that it is the least I can do.  That it has been a blessing for me personally.  And most of all, that he is an inspiration to me.  Homar and Marie, overcoming bad choices, deciding not to let the consequences continue to steal and kill and destroy.  Receiving God’s grace, bathing in God’s love, has been their strength, the power to keep their family together, to wait, to hope.  The joy of the Lord is my strength has never been so real to me than after this most blessed phone call.  I tell him I love him, and to please tell the other guys in there that I love them and that there are a lot of people out here who love them too.

Finally, my parents are in town for the weekend so we went to a local restaurant for some takeout.  As we waited for our food, a couple of the staff mentioned that they had been reading about me.  I gave them my usual smile and thanks, and kept sipping my water.  And then Juan came up to our table where we waited.  He said he heard what I was doing and wanted to shake my hand.  He knew what I was wearing.  He had been there.  He thanked me.  I asked how long he had been out.  Two years.  And he had been blessed with a job at this restaurant since he got out.  Things were going pretty well for him, praise God.  But I could still see a remnant of that shame that we unnecessarily and without mercy place on people like Juan.  We shook hands again, he thanked me, I told him it was a blessing for me, and he concluded, “We’re not all bad people.” 

Amen, Juan.  Amen.  And that’s 40 Days in Orange.

Silenced…

Thad, silenced      Marcus, silenced     Don, silenced

Perry, silenced      Diane, silenced     Jeanne, silenced

Walter, silenced    Alberta, silenced     Scott, silenced

Mr. W, silenced     Homar and Marie, silenced

Curt, silenced       Federal Agent Smith, silenced

Janice, silenced     Kevin, silenced     Jeff, silenced

Joy, silenced     Danny, silenced     Bubba, silenced

George, silenced     Michael, silenced   Diane, part 2, silenced

Emma, silenced     Martin, silenced

Clifford, silenced     Adam, silenced     Carly, silenced

Ryan, silenced     Kristi, silenced     Clinton, silenced

Aaron, silenced     Lou, silenced     Josh, silenced

Jay, silenced     Joan, silenced     Naz and Hope, silenced

Eloisa and Nick, silenced     Noemi, silenced     Cynthia, silenced

Susan, Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Raymond, The Cruz Family, and…, silenced

Jesus, silenced

Martin Luther King, Jr., silenced

Gandhi, silenced

Oscar Romero, silenced

Countless others, silenced

We tend to silence the folks who want to level the playing field on behalf of the marginalized. And as we go, we take out the poor and oppressed with them.

You and me, silent.  silencing.  silenced.

But not for long.  Love wins.  Life conquers.  And they are LOUD.

Life everlasting has victoriously swallowed death.
Hey, Death! What happened to your big win?
    Hey, Death! What happened to your sting?

 

 

Honored, humbled, blessed

I was honored and humbled today to have an opportunity to speak on behalf of the poor and marginalized in the New York Times.  What a blessing to cry for love and justice, redemption and goodness for the imprisoned and oppressed.  Please read their stories.  This journey is for them.  Listen to their realities.  And may our hearts and minds be open to respond in compassion and reason and mercy.

And please share your stories with me at 40daysinorange@gmail.com.

Together let’s strive for the beloved community, one truly full of love and justice for all.

Good Friday

I shared this homily with my faith community earlier this week.  The message and Way of the Cross, from 1 Corinthians 1: 18-31.  Fitting for today, this Friday that is as Good as it gets.  Just in case any of the rest of you are interested…

Wow, the message of the cross in an 8-10 minute homily.  They don’t make it easy on us preachers during Holy Week.  Well, let’s give it a shot.

When I was a young kid, I loved the story of Peter Rabbit.  Still do actually, and I have forced my kids to love it as well.  It was probably because I was a lot like Peter, mischievous and ornery, stubborn and troublesome.  And I loved it so much that I remember having dreams that I lived with a rabbit family in the cozy nook of their tree-root home.  Getting tucked into bed on the dirt floor, next to the warmth of my sibling rabbits, having just eaten blackberries and drunk some chamomile tea, I recall having the warmest, most comfortable feeling as I remembered the dream the next morning.  I belonged.  I was not actually a bunny in the dream.  I was myself.  Though different, I had a home, an alternate reality that was filled with love.

Please excuse my attempts at armchair psychoanalysis, but I believe this was one of my first glimpses into the new creation of God, the alternate reality our Lord invites us into, the message of the Cross.  I did not realize it at the time, of course, and I really did not need an escape from a bad home life – in fact I was deeply loved and cared for, much like Mother Rabbit cared for Peter and his siblings – yet what I saw was this different world where everyone belonged, no matter how different rabbits and human boys were.  And I wanted more of it.  Still do.

And here in Paul’s first letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Paul invites us to see a different reality, another world that is possible.  In fact, more than possible, it is a reality that is more real than the world as we often see and experience it.  Paul’s rabbit home is found through the message, the word, the logos, of the Cross.  And it is the power and wisdom of God to us who are being saved, but foolishness to those who are perishing.

We see here that Paul separates our realities into two distinctly different experiences.  Both are ongoing.  They are simultaneous.  Neither has culminated in any sort of finality.  They contrast and contradict one another in ways that make them utterly incompatible.  We are confronted in our own existence by these two realities.  And it is the message of the Cross that ushers us into the decision room, one door to foolishness and death, the other door to power and wisdom and life.

Paul writes this letter to the people of Corinth, hitting them with the contradictory and confrontational message of the Cross right from the start.  Corinth, the ancient Greek city destroyed by Rome, rebuilt by Julius Caesar, and established anew as a colony for freed slaves and other poor folk.  There was no middle class, a few rich people at the top with most among the poor at the bottom, revealing the steep social pyramid among which the Corinthian church existed.  And the Corinthian believers were not immune from the quarrels, factions, debates, and so-called wisdom of the world that came with the deep consciousness of status in one’s society.  The passage right before this one shows Paul challenging the divisions in their church, and we see that much of it came from their chasing after the wisdom of the world, a wisdom that would supposedly bring them great success, accomplishment, and status.  Foolishness, Paul proclaims.  The world does not know God through the wisdom of the world.  Chasing after the world’s ways of belonging, through education or careers or connections or status through wordly things and associations.  Foolishness.  This way is the way of those who are perishing.

The true way to God is through the message of the Cross.  God’s ultimate sign that what humans reject, God chooses as God’s very own.  The Cross.  This form of capital punishment, the electric chair or 3-part drug in a needle injected not in a small chamber but in the middle of Heritage Square or on our front lawn, for all the world to see.  The Cross.  To shame and humiliate, to demean and dehumanize the executed.  The Cross.  A sign to the world that the imperial power of Rome and all those who align with them should not be messed with.  The Cross.  Rejection, humiliation, powerlessness.  Utter folly that this Cross could be anything but just that.  Foolishness.  No way could the Cross usher God’s people into the new creation.  God is wise.  God is strong.  God is…

But the foolish are those of us who think we know who God is and what God does and how God should look and act and be in our world, associating God with worldly wisdom and wealth and prestige.  For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.  And God chooses what is foolish, weak, low and despised, rejected by our world, to shame those who are wise, strong, elite, and accepted.  God chooses what we reject and makes them God’s very own.

Consider the leader of our faith, Jesus the Galilean.  A Galilean Jew.  A person among a people rejected, in an unknown region of the world, populated by a despised mix of races, cultures, and religious identities.  Scorned as Jews by the Gentiles, looked down upon by the Jews as impure, God came to us through a people of multiple rejection.  Here in this place and these people, God continued the scandalous story of God’s way of salvation.  Foolishness!  Nothing good comes from Galilee.

Consider the Cross.  How Jesus the Galilean got there.  The Way of the Cross.  This message, the Word that was with God, that is God, the Word that is Love.  Consider Jesus’s life, for we are called, chosen to follow his lead.  Born to humble beginnings, from a lineage of pagans and prostitutes, slaves and shepherds.  Belonging to a despised people – the ignorant and insignificant of the world.  Inviting a ragtag group of fishermen and loose women and tax collectors to follow him as he touches the untouchables, dines with sinners, hangs among the disabled and disfigured, travels and teaches among the lowly people of Galilee, even Samaria.  All the while revealing the truth that what the world has rejected, God chooses.  Confronting Jerusalem, the strong and powerful, the wise and accepted.  Despised ones, chosen.  Foolishness!  To those who are perishing.  The power and wisdom of God for those being saved.

Being saved and chosen, called to solidarity with those who suffer, to acceptance among the rejected, to scorn the shame of the despised.  The message of the Cross.  Foolishness.  Yet among the oppressed, called by God, we are all chosen not just to bring comfort to those suffering from rejection, but empowered to confront, transcend, and transform whatever in oppressor society diminishes and destroys the fundamental dignity of human nature, a hero of mine Virgilio Elizondo proclaims.  And he continues to truthtell, “It is through the ignorant and powerless that salvation will come to the learned and powerful of this world.”

Consider our own calling today.  This message of the Cross.  How the foolishness of God confronts our own follies as we chase after the world.  Education.  Status.  Wealth.  How our groups, our institutions, our systems, what we find to make us feel accepted, yes even sometimes our life as the Church, are foolishness and lead us into the reality of those who are perishing.

But we have been given a picture of another reality, a glimpse into the new creation.  Out of death comes life.  The message of the Cross.  In God’s weakness, we find strength.  In God’s foolishness, we find wisdom.  In what the world rejects, we find God.  We discover the new reality, this new creation, our new joy of being, where no one is rejected, there is no status or distinction, where all are truly one.  In our differences, we belong.  And it is beautiful.

May we gladly heed our calling, know we are chosen among the rejected, to follow the Way of the Cross in solidarity with those who suffer, living life among the despised, and confronting the world’s foolish, death-dealing ways with another Way.  And may the message of the Cross be the power and wisdom of God for those of us who are being saved.

 

 

 

Day 39

Please somehow share this post today.  And when you do, share your own “Poverty is ______” statement.  On this day to remember suffering, let us truly focus our hearts on those who suffer. And how that means we all suffer.  Please share…

Poverty is…

“Poverty is vulnerability to death in its crudest forms.  Poverty is the relentless daily attrition of contending with the most primitive concerns of human existence: food and cleanliness and clothes and heat and housing and rest and play and work.”  William Stringfellow, My People is the Enemy, p. 6

Poverty is the young girl lured away into a life selling her soul, and all for a pair of shoes and a new purse.

Poverty is the man with a criminal record trying to make something of his life, yet hitting wall after wall after wall of legal discrimination, all because of one mistake.

Poverty is not having a textbook to take home to study, or access to a computer to do your assignments, or a classroom with ceiling tiles, or real and equal opportunities to learn and grow.

Poverty is the semi-truck trailer full of humans being told they could have a new life, while they are really being sold, commodities on the market.

Poverty is the couple with a newborn baby who cannot risk complaining against the landlord because they have nowhere else to go but who cannot keep living in the terrible conditions of their apartment.

Poverty is the young person suffering from the illness of addiction but who cannot afford private treatment, never able to find the help desperately needed to heal, ending up with a rap sheet instead of a health chart.

Poverty is the mother who can’t get a job, can’t get assistance with basic needs, can’t leave the shadows, only because she is told she didn’t walk through the right door.

Poverty is the teenager being abused but whose family won’t say anything because of shame.

Poverty is the disabled elderly woman who has a landlord keep her $99 deposit just because they think they can, stealing a large amount of her fixed-income monthly sustenance.

Poverty is waiting.  For the bus.  For the doctor.  In line for food.  For a decent home.  For the legal aid attorney to call you back.  For a stable job.  For everything, wherever you go.  Waiting.

Poverty is poison.

Poverty is vulnerability to death in its crudest forms.

That’s why speaking and listening and staring intently at poverty today is so fitting.  Today, on this day that the poor homeless criminal Jesus was put to death so many years ago.  Marginalized and oppressed, Jesus the Galilean took a journey to Jerusalem, the Way of the Cross, speaking truth to power, becoming one with the poor, and giving his life away so that we all may have unending hope, experience deepest joy, and know the most powerful weapon in world, Love.

Yet, poverty is when those of us who are not poor never care to see the poor, the homeless, the criminal right in front of our eyes.  Poverty is when our comforts come before our neighbor’s survival.  Poverty is when we become blinded by our complicity with systems of oppression and accepted social “truths” that cast people aside to the margins of existence.  Poverty is when we dehumanize the other by perpetuating the myths about the poor.

May the truth set us free.

Debunking Poverty Myths and Stereotypes (from http://www.couleecap.org Community Concerns June 2013)

In poverty, the choices you have are extremely different from the choices of those with privilege and access to resources. Those with privilege and access to resources have the luxury to make real choices about their future. The crisis of poverty rarely allows you to plan for your future. Most people in poverty do what they have to do to meet basic survival needs and to help those they love who are also in crisis. It is hard to think about having a future when your family is hungry today.

People living in poverty have to make tough choices with their money all day, every day, just to squeak by, and every dollar they spend could land them under the microscope. There’s no room for error. And, unfortunately, there’s plenty of judgment to go around from others. Many people who do not live in poverty have a tendency to criticize the poor and blame them for their supposed laziness, lack of intelligence, or willingness to make bad decisions.

There are many myths and misunderstandings that fuel stereotypes that negatively impact those living in poverty in the U.S. Here are just a few of many myths related to U.S. poverty:

1. MYTH: Poor people are unmotivated and have weak work ethics.

The Reality: Poor people do not have weaker work ethics or lower levels of motivation than wealthier people. Although poor people are often stereotyped as lazy, two-thirds of people living in poverty work an average of 1.7 jobs; 83% of children from low-income families have at least one employed parent; and close to 60% of children have at least one parent who works full-time and year-round. According to the Economic Policy Institute, poor working adults spend more hours working each week than their wealthier counterparts.

2. MYTH: A huge chunk of my tax dollars supports welfare recipients.

The Reality: Welfare costs about 1% of the Federal Budget. The majority of those living in poverty do not receive government welfare assistance.

3. MYTH: Those who get on welfare stay on welfare.

The Reality: Of those that receive welfare assistance, more than half stop receiving benefits after a year, 70% within two years, and 85% within four years.

4. MYTH: Social mobility is possible by working hard.

The Reality: Education is the key to social mobility, not “working hard.” Our current economy requires workers to be more skilled than in the past. This is not our grandfather’s era where people could simply “work hard and pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” Today, an education provides the bootstraps people need for social mobility. However, many people who live in poverty cannot afford the costs associated with secondary education.

5. MYTH: Poor parents are uninvolved in their children’s learning, largely because they do not value education.

The Reality: Low-income parents hold the same attitudes about education that wealthy parents do. Low-income parents might be less likely to attend school functions or volunteer in their children’s classrooms—not because they care less about education, but because they have less access to school involvement than their wealthier peers. They are more likely to work multiple jobs, to work evenings, to have jobs without paid leave, and to be unable to afford child care and public transportation.

6. MYTH: Poor people have babies to get more welfare.

The Reality: About $60 per month is all that welfare recipients receive for additional children, and in some states the amount is zero. The average welfare family is no larger than the average non-recipient American family. Welfare benefits are not a significant incentive for childbearing.

7. MYTH: Poverty has little lasting impact on children.

The Reality: Research is clear that poverty is the single greatest threat to children’s well-being. Poverty can impede children’s ability to learn and contribute to social, emotional, and behavioral problems. Poverty also can contribute to poor physical and mental health, and poor self-esteem. Risks are greatest for children who experience poverty when they are young and/or experience deep and persistent poverty.

8. MYTH: Poverty is a minority issue.

The Reality: Poverty is not solely a minority issue. Poverty affects people of all races. Of the Americans living in poverty today, 42% are White, 29% are Hispanic or Latino, 25% are Black or African American, and 4% are Asian. However, poverty has a disparate impact on people of color.

9. MYTH: Poor people tend to abuse drugs and alcohol.

The Reality: Poor people are no more likely than their wealthier counterparts to abuse alcohol or drugs. Although drug sales are more visible in poor neighborhoods, drug use is equally distributed across poor, middle class, and wealthy communities. Studies have found that alcohol consumption is significantly higher among upper middle class white high school students than among poor black high school students. This finding supports a history of research showing that alcohol abuse is far more prevalent among wealthy people than among poor people.

Susan, Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Raymond, The Cruz Family, and…

Susan

Susan came to our nonprofit’s emergency shelter over a year ago.  She had almost nothing to her name.  And we were soon to find out that she pretty much was a nobody.  Only because she did not have the proper identification documents, though.  She desperately needed assistance, and she qualified for public and private programs both.  Oh, except she didn’t.  She really didn’t exist.  She had no ID.  So between our social services and legal services programs as well as other community workers, we went to work trying to track down the documents she needed and find ways to advocate for her existence.  No public assistance.  No way to get a job.  Only emergency housing available.  We needed to work fast.  It took us a year.  Yes, an entire year!  From the Social Security Administration to the courts of Oklahoma to the Texas Department of Public Safety and to so many other places we went, advocating for her existence.  And finally after waiting and waiting, only to be stonewalled time and time again, we decided to just have her get a legal name change.  If the system won’t take you, then we will just work around it while working within it.  Sometime that’s what it takes.  All of us working together, making sure the Susans of this world are not forgotten and left alone to fend for themselves in a world that doesn’t seem to think they exist, just because they don’t have the right card or piece of paper.

Mr. and Mrs. Jones

A few months ago, after a long hot summer, a local veteran and his wife finally got their Air Conditioning and Heating unit fixed in their apartment.  After several unsuccessful attempts to get the landlord to respond to requests for the repairs, this veteran sought the help of the Baylor Law School Veterans Clinic.  Through our collaboration with the Veterans Clinic, we were able to represent the veteran in a pretty basic legal process of requesting repairs — in a way that got the attention of the landlord.  Within a few days, the veteran’s AC/Heat unit was replaced and the veteran and his wife no longer had to worry about suffering through another hot summer or chilly winter.  The legal process was fairly simple, but only if you knew what you were doing and biding by the law.  The veteran could not access the “system” and get a basic need provided for because there are very few, if any, attorneys who will take on this type of situation, especially for little to no pay.

Raymond

Raymond came to our First Monday Legal Advice Clinic a couple of months ago.  After suffering from a work-related injury and spending several days in the hospital and at home recovering, Raymond returned to his place of employment — a mechanic shop — to pick up his personal tools.  The employer refused to give Raymond his toolbox until Raymond provided him a hefty “storage fee”.  However, this storage fee was never agreed on and fell under no legal requirement.  Raymond felt taken advantage of and powerless to respond.  Even if he could find an attorney that would take on a case like this, Raymond had no money to pay the attorney’s fees required.  But through our Clinic and the help of some volunteer attorneys, law students and professors at Baylor Law School, Raymond received representation in his efforts to get back property that is rightfully his.  And it is not just property, but in essence it is his livelihood, as he has not been able to work and earn a living without it.  Raymond got his tools back and is now able to find stable employment.

The Cruz Family

A few months ago, the Cruz family was referred to our program.  They were being threatened with complete family disrupture and a shattering of the only life that the three children had ever known.  Faced with immigration removal proceedings and no extra money to hire another attorney, they were desperate for someone to help the children apply for the deferred action for childhood arrivals program.  This administrative policy provides temporary legal status for young people who came to the United States before they turned 16 and fulfill several other requirements.  Basically, it allows for young people to remain in the only country they have ever really called their home.  As we provided the necessary legal services to this family at a significantly low cost to them, each child was able to receive this temporary legal status and continue to pursue their dreams of getting an education and building a better life in the United States.  And it also allowed for the immigration judge to compassionately discern that this single mother family did not need to be shattered by an irrational and unbending immigration legal system.

Day 38

“[T]he health and maturity of the American legal system depend upon whether or not those who are the outcasts in society — the poor, the socially discriminated against, the politically unpopular — are, as a practical matter, represented in their rights and complaints and causes before the law.”  William Stringfellow, My People is the Enemy, p. 40.

Our American legal system is quite ill.  The lack of access to justice creates a dire situation that imprisons the poor and marginalized in cells of economic insecurity and legal turmoil.

I am an attorney for the poor and marginalized.  I am blessed work with Mission Waco-Mission World as director of Mission Waco Legal Services.  Providing legal services for those in need but who cannot afford to pay the going rates is a passion of mine.  The need is dire.  Although not always the hottest topic among philanthropists and other givers, we desperately need all of you to provide financial resources and other capacity-building means to meet the legal needs of not only low-income individuals and households, but also those of the lower middle-class (a rapidly growing group).  If you cannot give financially, then help us advocate among those able to support us with the resources sorely needed or right where you are get involved in countless other ways in the fight to provide justice for all.

National studies led the U.S. Supreme Court to state, “The middle 70% of our population is not being reached or served adequately by the legal profession.” This middle 70% does not include the bottom 10% that theoretically qualify for legal aid, but nationally for every client served by free legal aid services, one qualified client is turned away. In Texas, there is approximately one legal aid lawyer for every 11,152 Texans who qualify, while there are approximately 5.8 million Texans who qualify for legal aid. Nationally, less than 20% of the legal needs of low-income households are met with an attorney’s help.  Thus, only the top 20% of American households can afford the luxury of attorney representation when legal crises strike.

Legal needs such as those that might prevent the loss of stable housing and thus homelessness, the removal of legal barriers to employment, defense against unscrupulous debt collectors or preying lenders, representation in stressful family disputes, and the list goes on and on.  And these are just the civil legal needs.  80% of criminal defendants are indigent and must rely on either an underfunded, overworked public defender system (if it exists where one lives) or a “spin of the wheel, good luck where you land” court-appointed attorney system (never knowing what kind of lawyer and service you will end up with).  The legal needs among the low-income most often present themselves in situations that limit the opportunity for folks to overcome obstacles to some of life’s most basic necessities — work, shelter, food, family, financial freedom – and move forward to more stable, productive, and full lives.

The most cited reasons for lack of access to the justice system are that legal services cost too much, a sense that hiring an attorney would not help, ignorance about how to access the system adequately, and a belief that the legal situation is not a problem. Yet, reports reveal that legal services for low-income populations save taxpayer dollars by reducing the needs for public services and benefits, increase financial security of individuals and families, reduce recidivism, and strengthen the justice system overall, among many other benefits.  We must battle ignorance with truth.  Education, for all of us, empowers.

Yet, we have huge populations of our nation and communities that cannot afford their basic necessities, let alone legal services. Take Waco, Texas, where I live and work, as an example.  Waco has a poverty rate of close to 30%. 75% of jobs in Waco do not pay enough to cover the most basic and necessary living expenses for single parent families with 1 or 2 children (93% if 3 or more children). 65% of the jobs do not pay enough for a two parent, three children household. Almost 50% of two-parent, two-children households, and over 80% of single-parent, two+ children households do not make a living wage necessary to provide for basic necessities. And these incomes required to earn an annual living wage for Waco-McLennan County are anywhere from 2.2 to 2.7 times more than the amount of the federal poverty guidelines.  *see the brilliant Family Budgets from the Center for Public Policy Priorities

The need is great, and with great need comes even greater opportunity. So this opportunity to meet needs and build a more prosperous community is why Mission Waco Legal Services exists. It is the reason I felt called to Waco – to serve, to advocate, to solve problems collectively and collaboratively, to seek love and justice with our community. Our program exists to provide affordable, compassionate, holistic, and community-driven legal services for low-to-lower-moderate-income and marginalized individuals and families in order to promote increased quality of life for all of us.  We provide direct legal services in the areas of housing, employment, and immigration, a monthly legal advice clinic, legal education and outreach, and wraparound social services through our Holistic Advocacy Project.  We understand that the legal issue is often just one issue of many in our clients’ lives, an entry point into a time of vulnerability and crisis through which we offer holistic advocacy to empower our clients and together seek love and justice.

Please consider supporting us financially.  donate

Please make sure to designate your gift to Legal Services, if you feel so led.  Your support is greatly appreciated, and it means the world to the clients you enable us to serve and love!

And we can always use your prayers and positive vibes.  Together may we build solidarity with the poor and confront the established with those on the margins.  For this is the way of the leader of our faith, Jesus, his way of the Cross.  It is the way through death and into Life.

“When you live in the Anointed One, Jesus, a new law takes effect. The law of the Spirit of life breathes into you and liberates you from the law of sin and death.”  Romans 8:2, The Voice

Cynthia

My phone rang. My heart jumped. It was 6 am, and I was on my way to work. Nobody ever called me at this time. When I answered the call, I heard my wife’s voice and realized that something was wrong. She said that her mother had just heard on the news that there had been a shooting in the neighborhood where I worked. In fact, the non-profit organization, Newgate Mission, where I served as executive director and pastor had been named in the news report. Minutes away, my mind started racing. Who was it? What happened?

When I turned the corner, I saw the lights, the yellow crime scene tape, and the crowds. And then I saw that all that was happening centered on the main side door of our building. The victim had been shot on the bench right outside our door. I had never in my life experienced this type of disbelief or encountered emotions of this magnitude. Yet when I parked my truck, stepped out onto the pavement, and began approaching the crowd, I realized that what I was feeling had to be suppressed. My job was to shepherd our community through this tragedy.

My first step was to identify the body, a moment I can never forget. Next, I had to speak on behalf of our neighborhood to the broader community through the media as a people that would not cower in the face of evil acts and respond with the healing power of peace and forgiveness. And then I had to clean up the remains. Yes, even after the police “cleaned up” and the coroner left with the body, parts of Cynthia’s earthly being remained. So I did what I had to do. Finally, I had to figure out some way to provide comfort and consolation.

Cynthia Weaver was a woman of the streets. She struggled with mental illness, drug addiction, brush-ins with the law, physical and sexual abuse, homelessness, and all else that comes with this transitory, indigent existence. Cynthia, or “Baby Angel” as she was often called on the streets, was not an angel by any stretch of the definition. She stole. She sold herself. She used. She fell out from her family after abusing their care for years. However, she had the most precious smile and sweet spirit when out from under the influence of the negative forces in her life and within the safety of a community that truly cared for her. While spending time with our Newgate community, we could always count on Cynthia for a laugh, a smile, a hug, and a genuine inquiry into our individual and collective well-being. Cynthia, though, had been murdered, and on the doorsteps of the place that should have been her safe place.  Killed because she would not return a sexual favor to her killer for the drugs he provided her as they both attempted to numb their pain and escape their often horrific reality one of the only ways they knew how to.

Thrust into this situation, emotions tumultuous, mind and heart a wreck, how could I respond in a way that would lead our community away from the destructive responses of fear and hatred? Would I be able to hold it together personally and provide this scared, angry, and deeply violated community the strength necessary? And if so, how?

Two days later I walked with our community through a memorial service and a community-wide prayer walk in response to the tragic loss of our friend, Cynthia Weaver. Not only did our community need to grieve, but we had to respond to the broader community with a resounding message. Our “side of town” had already been vilified enough. We were not a community prone to violence. We were not a community that was inevitably faced with the destructive effects of drug abuse and sexual assault. We were not a community of miscreants and criminals. We were a community of broken people, hurting and wandering and groping. We were a faithful community that would respond with hope, peace, and love. We would not be overcome by hate, but instead overcome hate with love.

Because of this experience, I know more today what it means to be an advocate and defense for the poor. It means I suffer with, I stand up and stand in for, I lead the charge, and I clean up the remains. But even more than that, it means that I allow the strength, beauty, and dignity of indigent persons and communities be the strength I need, give my life meaning and purpose, and allow me to be a part of something dignified and beautiful, especially in the midst of unspeakable tragedy.

To this day I think fondly of Cynthia.  My heart breaks for her.  But it also breaks for her killer, his family, and the community that was shattered by violence that fateful day.  I think of the truth that broken people hurt broken people.  And I pray for healing.  I hope for hope.  I strive to reflect the light of life and love in all that I do.  And I invite others to do the same.  We are all broken.  Some of us hide it well, all of us attempt to escape.  Broken people hurt broken people.  Yet…

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.