The water situation in Flint, Michigan, where residents have been receiving lead-filled water resulting in serious effects on people, especially children, has brought to light a troubling thought: that water, or the restriction or, as is the case here, the compromise of quality of water given to poor people, is too often used as a weapon against them.

Everyone knows that in order to live, humans must have water. We are told from a very young age that people can survive longer without food than they can without water. Dehydration can cause a person to die a painful death. Water is a necessary element in order for there to be life  …and yet, governments, here and elsewhere, are using their power to restrict or compromise the supply of water to people whom they do not value.

In this country, it is no secret that black, brown and poor people are not highly valued. Some of the entitlement programs, which Republicans want to pare down, were put in place precisely because black and brown and poor people were suffering because of policies designed to limit their capacity to thrive in these United States.

But as this Flint water crisis has unfolded, it becomes clearer than ever how water is being used to compromise the lives of marginalized people here and elsewhere. In Palestine, the Israeli government, which is occupying Palestine, restricts the amount of water Palestinian people can receive. They do not supply water to Palestinian villages, while they readily supply water to Israeli settlers. Palestinians must buy their water on a scheduled basis, and their water is held in black tanks which one can see atop their houses. The Israeli government is in total control of whether or not they get the water they need in order to live.

Even if a Palestinian village is closer to a water treatment plant than is a newly formed Israeli settlement, the pipes supplying fresh water have been laid so that they bypass the village and go straight to the settlements.

It is appalling.

It is no less appalling that an emergency manager in Michigan, who had power over the local government to make decisions, decided to redirect the water supply for Flint residents from Detroit to the Flint River – to save money. It is highly troubling that no such diversions were ordered for people who live in wealthy suburbs. Flint is reportedly has a sizable black residency – over 50 percent. That, apparently, in addition to the fact that Flint was financially strapped, was enough to make the emergency manager decide that the residents of Flint could survive with water coming from a different source, which was cheaper than the water they had been using for years.

The lives of the people who would be affected by the water switch didn’t matter. It was all about the money.

In Israel, it is about the Israeli government, wanting its own homeland, compromising the lives of the Palestinians.

In Flint, insult has been added to injury as the government has continued to charge residents for water they cannot use or drink, and which has already irreparably damaged their children.

The city of Flint, and other cities in this nation, are violating the basic human rights of people by sending them poisoned water and making them pay for it. The Israeli government is as well compromising the human rights of the Palestinian people, making them pay for water in their own land while freely supplying Israeli settlers as they move into Palestine to start a new life. The restriction of water is basically being used as a weapon against poor people. http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/26/us/flint-michigan-water-crisis-race-poverty/)

The situation is so sad, so wrong and so indicative of the depth of racism that pervades not only this country but this world, that it is hard to write about.

But we need to look at what is going on, and, in the case or Flint, get water to the people and filters even as we press for justice, making the local government back away from its insistence on charging people for poisoned water.

It is the least we can do.

A candid observation …

The Comfortable and the Disinherited

I struggle with wondering if the races, white and black, can be reconciled in America.

If, or since I believe in an all-good and all-powerful God, I have to believe that it is possible. And …since I believe in crazy faith, I have to believe again that it’s possible.

But the rift between “the comfortable” and the “disinherited” is a big one…and it has been there from the beginning of our history. “The comfortable” seem to think that the cries of “the disinherited” are a lot of noise. “The comfortable” will say that since there is a black man in the White House, then all is well. “The disinherited” ought to be quiet.

But the fact is that “the comfortable” really do not know or care about “the disinherited.” Though many people, black and white, are “pro-life,” “the comfortable” have no idea of what life is for “the disinherited.”  They don’t know about the horrible schools that the children of “the disinherited” have to attend, while they know that “the comfortable” have wonderful, well-equipped schools just minutes away. They don’t know, or don’t care, that even now, urban schools often have the worst teachers, the most outdated books, few if any computers, no air conditioning and/or inadequate heat. They don’t know about how the children of “the disinherited” often do not have coats and gloves and hats and boots in the winter …or if they do know, they don’t care. They do not know, and therefore cannot care, what these horrific schools must do to the psyches of the children of “the disinherited.” In one of Jonathan Kozol’s books, Savage Inequalities,” he writes about a public school in East St. Louis where sewage overflowed into the kitchen. “The school had to be shut down because sewage flowed into the basement, through the floor, then up into the kitchen and into the students’ bathrooms. The backup occurred in food preparation areas.” (p. 23)  Can you imagine what that smelled like? Can you imagine the horror the children of “the disinherited felt? Too many of “the comfortable” cannot. They blame the parents for the plight of the children and they turn their heads.

They don’t know about the concerted efforts today to dismantle the voting rights of “the disinherited,” trying to make it as impossible now for black people to vote as it was 50 years ago, or worse. They do not care that the legacy of law enforcement in this country is that far too often, law enforcement officers took part in lynching, and that the “justice system” was never just for black people. They do not know that for “the disinherited,” there was no such thing as a jury of one’s peers, because black people have been historically tried by all-white juries. They don’t know about the traveling electric chair that was used to execute people in the early 20th century, or about how when one young black man’s execution didn’t work, (there was something wrong with the chair), they put him back in jail and then took him back to that chair after the kinks were worked out. So much for not believing in “cruel and unusual punishment.” (Read The Execution of Willie Francis by Gilbert King)

They don’t know how America’s legacy of slavery and white supremacy has absolutely tarnished the quality of life for black people, even in this, the 21s century. “The comfortable” don’t know about being kept from getting a job until “every white person has a job.” (Read about it in Timothy Egan’s book, The Worst Hard Time). “The comfortable” don’t know about being afraid to look at white people or being accused of doing the same. They do not know about being afraid to change lanes today without using one’s signal (Sandra Bland) or to be stopped for a routine traffic stop (Sam Dubose) or being afraid to carry a toy weapon in an open carry state (John Crawford). They do not know what it is like to know that all an officer has to say is, “I was in fear for my life” to be deemed justified in using lethal force against another human being who…most often …is one of those dang “disinherited.”

The ways of life of “the comfortable” and “the disinherited” are so very different. Can the chasm be crossed, so that “the comfortable” see the plight of “the disinherited?” And, if they see, can anything be done to “tenderize their hearts” so that the lives of “the disinherited” are less traumatic?

One of my friends told me that the term “white supremacy” is insulting. To use it, he said, was insulting. There is no such thing …Another one of my friends said there is no such thing as evil. I said that lynching was evil, and she disagreed. I think she gave me her reason, but I did not hear. I could not hear…

With that kind of separation between these two races can there be racial reconciliation?

If I believe in a good God, and if I believe in crazy faith, then my answer has to be “yes.”

But I am struggling on this one. “The comfortable” will not willingly look and see “the disinherited,” not without something major and traumatic happening to them.

A candid observation …

He With Gold Rules

“He with the gold …rules.”

That is a line spoken by Bill Moyers in his documentary: “State of Conflict: North Carolina.”

It is a fascinating but troubling documentary, exposing the right-wing takeover of government in North Carolina, bankrolled by one Art Pope, among others …which is resulting in an extreme erosion of rights of people in that state.

Specifically targeted are voting rights, women’s rights, and public higher education.  There are consistent “snips” to social safety nets in the state. Medicaid was not expanded in the state, seriously affecting “the least of these” and compromising, if not outright preventing, the very poor to have access to health care.

There is a minister, Rev. William Barber, president of the state chapter NAACP and a key coordinator of the multi-issue, multi-ethnic movement  which has taken on the state. Barber began his public protest with a small group of people last year; that number of people has swelled to thousands, gathering in cities all over the state, protesting and fighting what is going on.

There will be a mass rally on Saturday, February 8, in Charlotte.

Those are the facts of what’s going on. Here is my gut-wrenching reaction about what’s going on.

This sucks.

I have long thought that “justice” comes most readily to those who can pay for it. What’s going on says that “government” is defined and shaped by those …who can pay for it.

At the end of the day, is there such a thing as a democracy, where, theoretically, there is “liberty and justice for all?”  Is the notion of government “of the people, by the people and for the people” a pie in the sky? How can a select few of wealthy people be so cavalier about the lives and welfare of the masses? How can legislatures so blithely cut away services that will make live more bearable for so many people?

Somehow, a small group of wealthy people, and a larger group of not-as-wealthy-but-wanna-be people have gotten the notion that if one is poor, it’s because he or she is lazy. They have bought into the notion that in America, anything and everything is possible if one is willing to work hard.

Scores of people would refute that, people who are working two, three jobs to make ends meet and who still can’t make those ends meet. Scores of people who do have low paying jobs but with no benefits would refute that as well, stating for the record that they work as many hours as possible – at minimum wage, many of them – and are still living below the poverty level.

That the wealthy cannot see this, or perhaps more stridently, do not believe this or care about the truth of what’s being said and experienced, is troubling. It pulls at the very seams of a nation that prides itself on being morally superior to other nations.

A nation which forgets and exploits its poor cannot be said to be moral, not in any shape, way or form.

A candid observation …

Mercy and Justice, Defined

English: The Poor helping the poor
English: The Poor helping the poor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


In a recent interview with Theresa Riley of “Moyers & Company, Joel Berg, of NYC’s  Coalition Against Hunger said that 50 million Americans live in “food insecure” households. That means, simply, that many Americans just do not have enough to eat. Berg made the point that in this, the wealthiest country in the world, such a number is morally unacceptable.  People are “rationing food and skipping meals,” and the most adversely affected by this dire situation are children.  (http://billmoyers.com/2013/04/05/going-to-bed-hungry/).


Riley asked Berg what could be done about it, and Berg responded that Congress could pass legislation to give people a “living wage,” i.e., enough money to actually survive and live with some dignity. Berg said that the situation costs America $167.5 billion a year. That’s a staggering figure. Berg explained that hunger causes a plethora of problems, adding to health care costs in this nation, and ultimately has a negative impact of America’s economy overall. He said:  “Food insecure children experience a broad range of problems that affect their health, development, well-being and school performance. Poorly nourished children have lower school test scores and require far more long-term health care spending. Hunger also reduces the productivity of workers, which reduces their earnings, which, in turn, reduces their ability to purchase nutritious food for their children. In this vicious cycle, malnourished children do not do as well in school, are more likely to drop out, and are less likely to go to college than children who are properly nourished. Consequently, malnourished children earn less as adults and are less able to help America build a 21st-century high-skills economy. In order for the nation to build the best public education system in the world, bring down health care costs, and rebuild our economy, we simply must end hunger”


The entire interview was sobering and depressing. We do not want to see what is real in our world; it is much more comfortable and easy to reside in myth. If we do not see hunger, or the effects of hunger in our own country, amongst American citizens, it is easy not to think about it or to understand how dire a condition it is. Riley’s report, coupled with a documentary shown on HBO recently, American Winter, have made me think about, again, the difference between mercy and justice.


To give the poor and the needy food and clothing is showing mercy. Religious and non-religious people find it relatively easy to help people in this way. It is always gratifying but a bit troubling to see the outpouring of mercy gifts during the Christmas season. I have always wondered why the need to give seems so important only during that season, when in fact, hunger and poverty know no seasons. One of the major problems for poor children is that they do not eat well during the summer; the food that their parents are able to afford is often that which is least healthy, and so obesity, or the possibility of obesity, is much higher for those children …but the thought that some children in our country cannot and do not eat well in summer is sickening.  To give the poor the food they need, however skewed it seems that we think most about them only during the holidays, amounts to giving or showing mercy.


The more difficult work, however, is the work of justice. Berg said that the way to curb hunger in this country would be for Congress to pass a living wage. Berg said that the President and Congress ought to concentrate not only on creating wealth on Wall Street, but on making it possible for people to make a living wage; he also said the Congress should also move positively on President Obama’s request for the minimum wage to be raised to nine dollars, and then “index it to inflation.” (http://billmoyers.com/2013/04/05/going-to-bed-hungry/)


That seems simple enough, and it seems humane. It also seems economically wise, as hunger causes so many other problems that adversely affect the American economy. And yet, lawmakers in general seem hesitant to pass legislation that would let people have a living wage or get some decent money for the work they do. That sort of legislation only comes through the voices and actions of the people; getting Congress to hear the cries and see the needs of the poor and act on them is what constitutes justice work.


Power concedes nothing without a struggle, noted Frederick Douglass. When justice is being sought, there is always a struggle. One need only to look at the current fight for justice being waged by the LGBT community on marriage, or look back to struggles for basic rights waged by women and by African- Americans. Unfortunately, it appears that wanting one’s “country back” is equal to having a country where the scales are not in balance. Apparently, that, to many, is how America is supposed to be.


But the God of us all would not agree, not if the holy books of all religions are to be believed. The God in the Christian Bible,  Yahweh in the Hebrew scriptures, demanded justice, and grew angry when such justice was not forthcoming.


Once, a member of my congregation said to me, “Why are you preaching about the poor? There are supposed to be poor people. The Bible says it.” She was referring to a statement in the Bible where Jesus says, “The poor you will always have with you.” Are we to draw from that that God wants us not to worry or fret about the poor? I think not.


Susan Thistlewaite, a professor at the Chicago Theological School, author of Occupy the Bible,  and a regular contributor to The Washington Post, urged a group of us in a recent presentation she gave, to read the parables from the bottom up, from the perspective of the poor and not the wealthy. The outcome of doing that was personally very revealing.


We are not eager to do that, however. The bulk of us are not eager to seek justice, though the Hebrew Scriptures soundly advises us to do so. Justice work is difficult. It has to be so powerful that stony minds can be penetrated, and the needs of others can be put in front of political aspirations. The current struggle for gun control is a justice issue; what is being sought is not the prohibition of Americans to own guns, but, rather, a limitation on the kinds of guns that can be purchased, and the size of magazine clips as well. All that the gun control movement is trying to do is make it more difficult for anyone to shoot up an office or school full of people. That is justice work.


People don’t want justice for others, however, or maybe it is more accurate to say they don’t want to put the work into it. Justice work is hard and tedious; the fights against justice are just as focused as are the fights for justice. One who fights for justice has to be in it for the long haul.


It would be nice if the Congress would really think about the vast numbers of Americans struggling and pass a living wage and raise the minimum wage. But unless there are soldiers on the fields fighting for that, it “aint’ gonna happen.”


And so, the wealthiest nation in the world will continue to engage in seasonal mercy offerings. That’s good, but mercy without accompanying justice can come off as efforts in futility, because in spite of the good-intentioned mercy, the root of the problem is being ignored by those who could make a more long-standing difference.


A candid observation …


Poverty By Design

Even while survivors of our own country’s horrible 2012  “storm of the century,” Hurricane Sandy, are still reeling from Sandy’s wrath,  Haitians are still suffering from the 7.0 earthquake that happened three years ago today. Over 200,000 people were killed; 1.5 million were left homeless.

Homeless Haitians set up tents nearby the Pres...
Homeless Haitians set up tents nearby the Presidential Palace, in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In spite of billions of dollars pouring into the tiny country, said to be the poorest country in the world, the look of destruction is almost as stark as it was three years ago. Too many people are still living in overcrowded camps, where people are living in tents, with no fresh water, no sanitation, no electricity, and no privacy. Some camps have closed down, with some Haitians having been paid to leave them, but with so little new housing, one wonders where they have gone. A report on National Public Radio (NPR) said that some people have moved into new houses, but have ended up back in camps because they haven’t been able to get work to pay their rent. (http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=2&t=1&islist=false&id=169078876&m=169117672)

A friend of mine recently visited Haiti, and came back shaken. “I can’t stand to see that kind of poverty,” he said. “It’s too much.”

If it’s too much for a visitor who sees what is there but can leave it, one wonders how those trapped in the abject poverty and destruction are faring. One wonders what the overall psychological effects are on the spirits of the people who live in such squalor.

There was money pledged, billions, in fact. That money was received and according to Haitian officials, used well and wisely, but apparently the “wise and well” spending of the money did not extend to the millions of people living in misery. What happens to people who get “used” to being miserable? And what happens to the world when there are so many people, internationally, who live in such disgusting poverty?

In every poor nation, there are people who live quite well, and I would bet that those who live well try their best to stay away from the poverty and misery literally at their feet. Poverty is ugly. Nobody wants to see it.

And yet, perhaps if they would see it, and smell it, and taste it and hear it…they would be moved to help in ways they could. Maybe if they could see the squalor they know is there, their hearts would be pricked.

Once, when I was a reporter, I did a story on poverty in the city. I visited the “home” of a family, where the walls were cracked and broken, where there were holes in the floor of one of the upstairs bedrooms, where the roaches were everywhere, even in the refrigerator. The resident, a mother with small children, explained that she could not afford anything else, and that the landlord ignored her requests for help. “I clean,” she said, “but the roaches are everywhere. I can’t get them out.”  At night, she said, she would put cotton in her ears and in the ears of her children so that no roach would climb inside of them.

“I don’t sleep well,” she said. “I worry for my children.

Yes, she worked, but at a job which paid her barely enough to live. She had no benefits. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing.

“In the winter, we all stay in the kitchen,” she said, “and stay warm by the heat from the oven.”

I don’t even know why I wanted to do that story, but the images, the voices, the smells have never left my consciousness. That there are people living like that in these United States is troubling…and the fact that the poverty here isn’t even close to the poverty I have seen in other countries is sobering. Jonathan Kozol, in some of his books, describes the poverty and squalor that many urban kids and youth in this country face every day, in their schools, of all places. The facilities many of our kids go to every day do not encourage learning or the desire for wisdom. Rather, as students shudder in the winter and roast in the summer, as they go to bathrooms which many times do not work well, as they look through broken windows, or, worse, look at the place where windows are supposed to be, but see giant pieces of plywood instead, one wonders how they manage to learn anything. Even the poor like nice surroundings.

The poor are not objects, though we tend to look at them that way. I read recently that in the system of capitalism, some are supposed to be poor; that’s the way the system works. Wrote H.W. Brands in his book, American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900, democracy and capitalism are two opposing ideologies, antagonistic to each other. Juxtaposing the ideas of Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith, Brands called them “dueling manifestos.” “Democracy depends on equality, capitalism on inequality,” wrote Brands. “Citizens in a democracy come to the public square with one vote each; participants in a capitalist economy arrive at the marketplace with unequal talents and resources and leave the marketplace with unequal rewards.” (page 10)

In order to make this capitalist democracy work, then, we have to be able to look at some people as objects, not human beings with souls and needs. Their suffering cannot be allowed to reach our nostrils or our hearts.  They become objects which can and will be used to further the wealth of those who, frankly, do not need more money, but who are driven to get more and more.

It is the way the system works.

That reality is sobering. When I think of the people squashed in those tents in Haiti, while some in Haiti are living in luxury, when I think of the poor in this nation, the richest in the world, we’ve been told, when I think of the poverty in India and in Latin America…and even in the places where we who are more fortunate actually go for vacations. I shudder.

Something is wrong and not enough of us want to face it.

A candid observation …