Saturday, February 8, 2014

Baltimore, A Broken Heart Love's Cradle Is

There's no denying it: Baltimore, like many other cities, has serious problems. Terrible crime. Massive unemployment. Atrocious health disparities. Devastated housing. Leaders more interested in making a name for themselves than in properly managing the city's resources. The legacy of postindustrial economic losses and institutionalized racism are still quite real to many people in Baltimore. This is felt most acutely when people see little fruit for their hard work or have to live in fear of violence.
These are not concerns limited to the white & wealthy, as sharp as the divisions between the “two Americas” that David Simon has expounded on may be. Whether you are in Patterson Park or Sandtown, most residents want to be able to work, enjoy the many great things about the city, and commune with their neighbors without worrying that their safety will be threatened, their tax dollars will be mismanaged, or their fellow citizens will go hungry & homeless. In general, however, it is the wealthier people in the city who are able to agitate more loudly for change, especially since they are usually contributing what they believe is their fair share to the public administration.
The recent post from Tracey Halvorsen threw this fear into focus, giving us a broken-hearted perspective on Baltimore’s crime problem in particular. The pieces from Lawrence Lanahan and Tim Barnett have helpfully exposed some of the difficulties wrought by the privilege inherent in Halvorsen’s remarks. I found their articles helpful though a little less practical; for example, Lanahan calls inequality the real “elephant in the room” even though various public leaders have been discussing inequality quite a bit lately while Barnett calls us to love abstractly in a manner that’s stirring but a bit hollow. Mark Brown’s relentlessly pragmatic approach dovetails with City Paper’s 10 New Year’s Resolutions well to suggest a few policies that could make a big impact. These are all a reasonable place to start; I would also briefly suggest that razing more vacant housing and investing in more urban farms would probably help provide jobs in areas that need them, as is happening in my neighborhood.
I want to add to the conversation by talking about reconciliation, which is a crucial element that has been left out. I believe very strongly in the “air war” of policy to fight poverty and its attendant ills, but I believe even more strongly that no policy will work without personal, cultural, and environmental change that accompanies it. Policy helps to shape people, cultures, and our environment from the top down; reconciliation & relationships shape them from the ground up. My experience is shaped by the fact that I’ve lived in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood for the past 4 years, which is by many objective standards (including infant mortality & murder rate) not the greatest place to live. I would like to share a few of the things I’ve learned here from my neighbors about reconciliation.
There’s been a lot of talk about privilege in this debate; I don’t think haranguing someone about their privilege is particularly helpful once it’s been pointed out and we all acknowledge that our instincts for self-preservation can lead us to exclude others and even harm them unnecessarily. There has also been a lot of discussion around systemic inequalities and structures perpetuated poverty, which are also very important to consider. However, I think it is easy to forget that you can fall off either side of the privilege tightrope when talking about the poor: you can be “conservatively” apathetic about people ever escaping substance abuse & crime or you can be “liberally” overindulgent in a materialistic view of society that assumes poor people only need more stuff (which is not many of them say when you ask them what they need.) If we look at the billions that have been spent fighting poverty in America, it is clear that we have not invested in the structural reforms that will reduce poverty, nor have we created institutions that the poor in any way enjoy dealing with. Indeed, when you ask poor people around the world to describe what their biggest needs are, they overwhelmingly describe broken relationships & freedom from shame as paramount, not services or cash.
Thus, if Halvorsen's article and the responses to it teach us anything, it is that no desire of our hearts is so pure that it can't be twisted to harm others. Caring for the poor is a good thing; it becomes a bad thing when we deny the agency of the poor in their own self-improvement. Cynicism about political and economic motivations is a good thing; it becomes a bad thing when it chokes our passion until we are bitterly apathetic. Understanding the structures that stratify privilege is a good thing; it becomes a bad thing when we incentivize victimhood and fritter away our energy with privilege-checking. Safety is a good thing; it becomes a bad thing when innocent people must suffer unnecessarily for us to be safe. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr is instructive here: "You must come to see that it is possible for a man to be self-centered in his self-denial and self-righteous in his self-sacrifice. He may be generous in order to feed his ego and pious in order to feed his pride. Man has the tragic capacity to relegate a heightening virtue to a tragic vice. Without love benevolence becomes egotism, and martyrdom becomes spiritual pride."
The poor are not, as some might implicitly desire, to be confined to areas where they might only hurt each other. However, they aren't helplessly in need of more money and fewer drug arrests from above, either. They have their own resources and capabilities that allow them to survive or thrive in difficult neighborhoods like Sandtown. My neighbors are thoughtful people who support one another through crises and want to make our block a better place. My love for my neighbors and their love for me is magnified by our proximity. My current work to bring better mental health resources benefits greatly from my presence in the community as I have stronger relationships with the people that I am trying to empower and help develop. I can learn from them far more effectively by living here and see how they are already working together to address the inequalities we face.
However, I also have neighbors whose individual moral choices- shaped by policy, culture, and environment- harm others or themselves. They are aided & abetted by others who either benefit from harming others (akin to the businesses that reap greater profits when more teenagers are locked up) or are too intimidated or unaware to exercise their own agency. These neighbors are often young men whose response to their own traumas, desperation, or stubborn pride is violence & intimidation. We can peel the onion layers of environment, culture, and personal decisions for quite a long time (and debate them fierecely!), but eventually we find a person whose relationship with himself, others, and God is broken.
Thus, if policies like more beat cops, fewer marijuana arrests, and a living wage are outside-in ways of reducing external motivations to harm others, reconciliation is the inside-out work of righting those relationships. This is a long and difficult work that is not easily accomplished in a program or a policy. It does not involve targeting just the most “at-risk,” for they live in a network of relationships that help to make up that risk. The people that are a danger to themselves and others become violent moral actors both through sheer relational neglect and through relational indulgence; if we are going to change the culture of violence in this city, we must address these relationships.
I would like to suggest that many of our policy failures have come about because we fail to recognize the strengths & assets that Baltimore’s poor have, especially in regards to relationships. The knowledge that a community has about each other when someone is in need works for the vulnerable when someone is ill or struggling; it works against justice when a desire to keep the peace results in zero tolerance for “snitching.” I have watched someone crash their dirt bike in the street and seen a brave soul move the bike to a hiding place before moving the injured man out of the road; the value system inherent in that interaction is telling. The ingenuity, tenacity, and fraternity shared by my neighbors is inspiring and challenging to me as it works itself out through these complex interactions. I cannot speak for them (though I enthusiastically support things that let them speak louder for themselves), but I can say that being here in Sandtown has challenged my privilege in a way that no college class or Upworthy video ever has.
Reconciliation happens across race, class, and gender in powerful ways when people share life together and work together in ways that respect the innate gifts of every person. It is very easy for me, as a privileged white dude with a graduate degree, to simply list off a helpful smattering of suggestions or scoldings for the problems that my friends face. It is been a discipline for myself to be silent, to listen, and to coax opinions from my neighbors as we try to address the devastation that a barrage of traumas has wrought. It is these personal interactions that have shaped the policies and programs we’re creating, and it is this sort of reconciliation—where I admit my culture’s tendency to fix causes harm and they admit their culture’s tendency to protect causes harm—that we can join together in.
My intention throughout this essay is to make reconciliation intensely practical, as I think it is easy to use a word like “reconciliation” as a careless pipe dream. Again, I think good policies like vigorous audits, more beat cops, fewer drug arrests, and accountability for slumlords are really important and I’m glad people are talking about them (most of them have some very strong component of fostering better relationships and more intimate knowledge of local communities.) All of these will not be as effective if those of us who are privileged aren’t spending more time in relationships with the less privileged in order for our outlooks to be changed and for the good things that we have to be shared in a more meaningfully.
It’s not just enough to spend time, though, as we will retain every opportunity to exercise our privilege that we can. We must build relationships in contexts where our power is stripped away and we can be equally vulnerable with one another. Having (hopefully) brought “reconciliation” out of the realm of empty political cliche, I want to turn to “love” and “brokenhearted,” which are also getting tossed around.
Your heart is not broken for Baltimore if you’re content to have zero crime in Patterson Park while Sandtown keeps up the same murder rate. Being in Sandtown, though, doesn’t really give me, my wife, my daughter, and our housemate the option to just work for justice & safety for people like us. We are slowly becoming enmeshed in a network of relationships and hopefully becoming part of the change as we learn to love our neighbors and they learn to love us. We weep with them when their children die and they weep with us when ours die. I know that it can be easily to idolize this sense of identification and I do not want to pretend that we have somehow atoned for our white guilt or erased our class privilege by buying a house in this neighborhood. (It is also important to acknowledge that the way for us was paved by other incredible pioneers who have given-- and received-- much more, such as the Tibbels family.) However, we have learned, taught, and loved in ways that I think will endure because we have been broken— for proximity has brought vulnerability to brokenness, and vulnerability to brokenness has in turn brought love. As the hymn says, "a broken heart love's cradle is."
Apathy is a bitterly prescient reality in many of these discussions. Just like we can twist our desire to walk to and from our cars in peace into a malignant “just arrest more” attitude, so we can twist our disappointed idealism into a soul-killing eyeroll. This is where I think Baltimore’s poor—who are overwhelmingly and enthusiastically religious— have the most to teach us.
The battleground of faith is where my story met Sandtown’s; I started attending New Song Community Church when I was in med school and moved into the neighborhood a few years later, as they strongly encourage intentional relocation for all the reasons that I have discussed above. It is faith that pushes many people I know forward; a relentless hope like that of Dr. King whose famous quote about “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” is rooted in a fierce faith in God’s sovereign plan and eventual victory. While I know that faith is not a comfortable subject for many people, what the underprivileged and faithful people of Baltimore have to teach the privilege of the the privileged and faithless is this:
"So the greatest of all virtues is love. It is here that we find the true meaning of the Christian faith. This is at bottom the meaning of the cross. The great event on Calvary signifies more than a meaningless drama that took place on the stage of history. It is a telescope through which we look out into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking forth into time. It is an eternal reminder to a power drunk generation that love is most durable power in the world, and that it is at bottom the heartbeat of the moral cosmos."- from Paul’s Letter to American Christians (don't miss the last 5 minutes of the sermon, rarely recorded elsewhere, where he talks about how he grapples with his own failures to love others and takes those to the cross.)
Faith in the justice of God gives us hope that things will be made right, but it also motivates us to change things for our neighbors in need as we are drawn into reconciling relationships with them. Jesus helps us to reconcile the broken relationships we have with ourselves and with God by forgiving our sins (so incredibly important for our neighbors who have harmed others or been harmed); as that inward relationship is transformed we then have the resources to change our relationships with others.
“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility [...] and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” -Ephesians 2:14-18
Jesus was the pioneer when it comes to moving into a bad neighborhood; when he “became flesh and dwelt among us” he shared our pain and the suffering that our sins deserved in order to accomplish this great work of reconciliation. Through the liturgy of church we move together from this inward reconciliation to outward reconciliation; we work out the difficult practicalities of life together only after we have stood side-by-side to worship at the foot of the Cross, where my neighbors and I have no choice but to stand on level ground.
So many great initiatives across Baltimore—from the ones we love in Sandtown to ones that get written up in fancy journals, many important works of community development are happening in and around churches. At New Song, we have emphasized reconciliation, redistribution, and relocation for over 25 years and some marvelous things have happened by faith and through grace. There are even a few young men whose lives have been changed by relationships and pulled them out of the dark trajectory of violence towards something far more beautiful; they are now my teachers. Come and see for yourself if you like. There are many people in Baltimore who have a lot to give us if we are willing to come to church and listen.


Shelly McDonald said...

Hi, Matt. Fellow city-dweller here on the east side. I found this blog when someone posted it onto my recent post about the recent Baltimore debates. I appreciate your thoughts and perspective! Especially your mention that "no desire of our hearts is so pure that it can't be twisted to harm others." Thanks for sharing.

Bob Smithey said...

that is all.

Matthew said...

lol @"Bob"