Side By Side

On September 1, 2007, I wrote and said the following,

We say that we are a Christian nation yet we have let our brothers and sisters down. We seemed to be more concerned that the casinos on the Gulf Coast are rebuilt bigger and safer than we are that homes in the 9th ward of New Orleans are.

The sad thing about all this talk about Katrina and the slowness of the recovery is that it is only the tip of iceberg. The destruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is only the latest event in a series of events that demonstrates the lack of concern we have for people in this country. How long will we be a country that speaks of “family values” yet does not value the family? How long will we be a country where wealth is the goal and poverty is considered sinful? How long will we be a church where the prosperity gospel of wealth and abundance and not the Heavenly Kingdom is preached in the pulpit?

I know that countless people have gone to Biloxi and I know that not everyone can go. But if we are who we say we are, then why have we not, as Christians, cried out in anger at how we have treated our own brothers and sisters!? Is it because we would rather not think about it; is it because we would rather not bring the lower classes, the outcasts, and the refuse of society to our dinner table? Are we to forget that England in the period of time following the American Revolution almost underwent a similar fate as did France? Are we to forget that were it not for John Wesley and the Methodist Revival speaking out against the injustice done to the poor and lower classes, England would have undergone a similar violent revolution as did the French? (“Who Shall Be Invited”; the information in italics was quoted in the 5 September 2007 edition of the UM Nexus.)

Apparently, my words are in vain. There is a report (link no longer works) telling us that the Department of Housing and Urban Development is planning on tearing down 4,600 public subsidized apartments and replacing them with 744 similarly subsidized units. An additional 1,000 market rate and tax credit units which will have an average cost of $400,000 are to be built in, apparently, the same area.

In addition, over 50,000 families living in FEMA trailers who are being forced out. Over 90,000 homeowners are still waiting to receive federal recovery funds. And it appears that a tent city has sprung up across from the New Orleans City Hall and under Interstate 10. In Mississippi, poor and working people are being displaced to allow the casinos to grow and develop other commercial activities. Somehow, I can’t see how this will be an improvement on the situation in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast.

It would be one thing if the destruction of housing for the poor was limited to one place or time but that is not the case. Neighborhoods are being taken away around the globe, in Angola, Hungary, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Russia, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. We already minimize the poor; must we destroy any hope they have for this life? Do we think that by taking away their housing and limiting the amount of money they can earn through the minimum wage that they will eventually go away?

If that were to occur, then the people who are the middle class will become the lower class and what shall we do then? Jesus reminded His disciples that they would not always have Him in this life but they would have the poor with them always. (Mark 14: 7) And what I said on September 1st rings even more true.

The oldest community in the history of the United States is the Jamestown Settlement in Virginia (yes, I know that St. Augustine, Florida, has been around a lot longer). From what I remember of my history, the people who settled Jamestown saw this country as a land where gold lay on the ground and all you had to do was pick it up to become rich. Those early settlers, gentleman by profession, quickly found out that you had to work in order to make a community survive. Communities are not built by those who seek quick riches but by those who have other goals.

Even the Pilgrims, who came to this country to escape religious persecution, understood that. No matter how we romanticize their survival and what exactly they ate for their first Thanksgiving dinner, we have to understand as they did that you cannot build a community that is separate from those around you. The survival of the Pilgrim community could not have been accomplished without the aid of those who already lived there.

Sadly, our concern for the native population of this country never carried forward and we found ways to bring people over to do the tasks which many found disdainful and beneath their status. Still, the point is made that you cannot build communities for a select few and you cannot build communities that ignore the residents who are there already. What the Department of Housing and Urban Development is trying to do is follow paths that go in the wrong direction and which lead to failure in the long run.

This same report also included several disturbing comments about the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Alphonso Jackson. These comments echo comments made last year about Secretary Jackson.

Last May when I posted “Opening the Circle”, I wrote

I have a friend who I am concerned about; he has said some things that are very questionable, at least in terms of where he said them and his current position. What he said was not derogatory or anything of that nature but it brings to question his value system and how it has changed over the almost forty years that I have known him. I suppose what bothers me more than anything else is that he is probably going to ignore my comments and keep moving in the direction that he has been headed for some time. It is as if he drew a circle around himself in order to shut out others. His actions remind me of a poem that has lurked in the back of my mind for many years:

He drew a circle that shut me out–
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win.
We drew a circle that took him in! (“Outwitted” by Edwin Markham)

The friend that I referred to in that post was Alphonso Jackson, the same Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. We once were friends but I am not sure where we stand today.

In the Bush Administration, loyalty is much more important than friendship and friendship, it appears, is based on your social and economic standing. In those regards, I am not longer in the same league as Secretary Jackson.

But it wasn’t that way several years ago. I have on my desk a picture of the two of us taken in 1995 when we both attended the ceremony in which our alma mater changed its name from Northeast Missouri State University to Truman State University.

The author and Alphonso Jackson (1995)

It is an interesting picture because, for us, it evokes memories of another day in 1969 when we stood side by side in an entirely different situation.

We first met during the summer of 1966. I was a fifteen year old “whiz” kid entering college for the very first time and Al was a nineteen year old transfer student from Dallas, Texas, seeking to get his grades up so that he could run track for Kenneth Gardner and the Bulldogs of Northeast Missouri State. I would eventually receive my Ph. D. from the University of Iowa and Al was to become the Deputy Secretary for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2001 and later, in 2004, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. I have always said that the college should put a sign on the door of Missouri Hall 520 indicating what the two occupants of that room during the summer of 1966 later accomplished in life

The significance of the two of us standing together in 1995 is that there is another picture of the two of us standing together in 1969. For many years, I thought that a copy of the picture existed in the archives of one of the Missouri newspapers but I had never been able to find it. (It turns out that there are no newspaper photographs. The Baldwin Hall sit-in received minimal coverage in the media outside Kirksville.) The only pictures that ever existed were the ones taken by a video cameraman and I doubt that he kept a copy.

In the spring of 1969, the black students at Truman sought equal housing opportunities in the city of Kirksville. Though the university had been a part of the city for over one hundred years, the relationship between the two institutions was never the best. Despite its designation as the state’s liberal arts university today, Kirksville was then and probably still is today a very politically conservative area. The stone over the entrance to First United Methodist Church shows that the church was once a Methodist Episcopal South church.

Since its beginning as 1st District Normal School, the majority of its students came from the area around Kirksville. There was a substantial population, however, that came from beyond the regional boundaries of the college and needed to live on the campus or in town. And therein lay the problem. It was possible, if you were a white student, to find a place to live off-campus. But for black students, however, this was not possible. The landlords of Kirksville, reluctant to rent to white students but willing to take their money, did not want to rent to black students at all. The Association of Black Collegians sent a delegation, including Al, to meet with the College Board of Regents for help in resolving this problem.

The Board refused, saying that it was not their problem. The ABC then went to the City Council of Kirksville asking for their help. The Council also refused to help, saying that it was not their problem and they needed to work through the university. With no clear-cut solution to the problem and because 1969 was the season of sit-ins and demonstrations, the decision was made to occupy Baldwin Hall, the College administration building.

I was a sophomore that spring, struggling with the realities of college education. The demands of college had taken me away from campus activities and I knew little of what was happening on the other side of the campus. But either by word of mouth or some announcement on the local radio station, I heard that the administration building had been occupied and a confrontation was developing between the black students in the building and white students outside the building.

When I found out what was happening, I immediately went over to the administration building. I was able to get into the building. I went because the people in the building were my friends and times like these demanded that you support your friends. That is when the other picture was taken. A news cameraman was taking pictures inside the administration building. The picture that I speak of shows a young, long-haired white boy standing next to Alphonso Jackson and the other leaders of the Association of Black Collegians as the announcement of a peaceful settlement was made. Those who saw the picture assumed that because of where I was standing that I was one of the leaders, which was not the case.

It is not the type of picture that mothers, fathers, grandmothers and other relatives (or at least my mother, father, and grandmother) speak of with pride. My grandmother saw the news footage when it was broadcast on the St. Louis stations; she immediately called my parents and told them what I was doing. Now, my family had never easily accepted my political activities and the knowledge that I appeared to be leading a campus sit-in didn’t help matters either.

But I wasn’t standing there because of my politics; I was standing there because Al was my friend. Politics may have motivated me in part, I am sure. Interestingly enough, while some white activists were involved in the negotiations to peacefully end the sit-in; most of the white activists were nowhere to be found.

But I was raised with the thought that if you accepted Christ, you fought for peace, justice, and righteousness. More than anything else, that is what had lead me to enter the building that night.

When we left the building, there was hope that there would be a change in the policy and that all students at Truman would have a chance for equitable housing. After that, we went onto other things. Al moved onto St. Louis and then to Dallas. I went my own way and our contacts were limited. But a friendship that started in 1966 didn’t end because we no longer saw each other. And things that he said and what he did stayed with me and were as much a part of my education through out the years as the formal learning I received at Truman, the University of Missouri and the University of Iowa. I assumed the same was true for Al. It is apparent that was not the case.

It is because we once were friends and we stood side-by-side in the fight for fairness and equality that I have to wonder what happened. I have my own thoughts as to why there has been this shift but they are my own thoughts and not germane to the matter at hand. But I have to wonder if the quest for money and power, which it appears Al is attempting to make, are the reasons for this shift.

What are friends for? Do they stand by your side only in times of your success? Or are they there no matter what? A friend will tell you when what you are doing is wrong, though that doesn’t appear to be the standard for friendship in the present Bush administration.

It is s a friend that I write to remind the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development that there are those who remember what he once stood for and what he once did. I stood by the side of Al Jackson as he worked for his friends and classmates in an effort to have the same opportunities as others. I cannot stand aside and let the actions of Alphonso Jackson destroy the work that he once did.

In this season of Advent we are reminded that Jesus came to bring shelter for the homeless. There is still time to stop the destruction of the housing in New Orleans and then begin building affordable housing, not just for those in Louisiana or Mississippi who still suffer from Hurricane Katrina, but for all those in the United States who lack affordable and safe housing. There is still time to do what is right and not just politically correct.


6 thoughts on “Side By Side

  1. My spouse attended NE MO State/Truman State from 1982-1989 after completing her Master’s thesis. She commented to me during my one visit to Kirksville about the tenuous relationship between the school and the local community. After these many years she comments that Kirksville was her “wilderness experience” in her/our spiritual walk with Jesus. She attributes this in part to the poor job the local UMC establishment did in ministering to the many methodist students that pass through the University. I view her comments and your comments as a personal charge from the God of Truth to speak truth to all regardless of personal power or personal relationship. Keep the faith.

  2. Thank you for your comment. I do not share that view about the relationship between the church and the school community but it was a different period of time. I know that many of the ministers involved with their denominational campus ministry (including the Wesley House and the United Methodist campus ministry) were among those working for the solution to the sit-in.

    Of course, now the Missouri Annual Conference has reduced the funding for the Wesley House and that will not help things. It will be up to us to insure that things change for the positive.

    Let us work to make the present times different and better.

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