There are moments in life when you hear the voice of God. To clarify, I have not heard an audible voice; instead, God most often speaks to me through the voices of other people — especially people who are passionate about a cause. They are the folks who are captured by a vision of what could be, those who challenge us to consider a better, more human and just world.
At a recent luncheon at our church, we had the privilege of hearing one such person: The Rev. Larry James, President and CEO of CitySquare in Dallas. Larry has a passion for addressing the challenges of the poor, and he recently wrote a book titled “The Wealth of the Poor” (Leafwood Publishers, 2013). Years ago, Larry became acutely aware of the plight of the poor in Dallas — a city of growth, wealth and economic strength. Dallasites in Preston Hollow and the Park Cities often are not aware of the fact that Dallas residents in general are more likely to be impoverished than in any of America’s 20 largest cities except Detroit, Memphis and Philadelphia. Although the unemployment rate in Dallas is 6.1 percent, jobs alone are not the answer to lifting people out of poverty. According to Celia Cole, president of the Texas Food Bank Association, unemployment is not the main problem. “It’s underemployment. Texas has lots of jobs, but too many with no benefits or low wages,” she says. The fact is that a considerable portion of the poor have jobs, but are paid too little to better their situation.
Dallas, at present, is home to 18 billionaires and lots of wealthy, successful people — and yet 39 percent of the population, according to Larry James, is underemployed. Another startling statistic is that just under 40 percent of children under 5 live in poverty. About 260,000 people in Dallas are considered poor. Shocking statistics.
In response to the situation, Mayor Mike Rawlings recently launched a Poverty Task Force and appointed Larry James to chair the effort — a great decision, given Larry’s knowledge of the problem and can-do approach to homelessness and poverty. “We’ve got to have some short-term plans that are more substantive,” said Mayor Rawlings. “I want them to come back and tell us, as a city, what we can do more of, quicker. Not the pie-in-the-sky stuff, which by the way, we’re working on.”
The Task Force will appropriately include some people from society’s margins who are affected directly by poverty, so that its work will be rooted in actual experience. This will not be another group of privileged people trying to help folks they have no real way of understanding.
In my study at the church, I have a wood engraving hanging on the wall. It’s by Fritz Eichenberg, and it’s titled “Christ of the Breadlines.” It pictures seven individuals, each wrapped in tattered blankets against the cold, standing in a food line. The center character in the line is clearly Christ himself, waiting patiently along with the rest. I can’t help but think that, were I to find myself in that food line, I might not be so patient, waiting for a better society of fair wages and a commitment to human dignity that might make such lines unnecessary. In the meantime, efforts like CitySquare and the Poverty Task Force need our impatient commitment to being part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.