Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Do we Americans care more about stray animals than homeless people?

When we did the homeless count this year in Pasadena, I noticed that seven homeless people were sleeping in front of the posh SPCA Animal Shelter near Central Park. It seemed ironic that animals were being sheltered in a warm, safe place while human beings were out in the cold. What’s wrong with this picture?
During a recent meeting of my interfaith spiritual practice group, we talked about how people are more likely to take in stray animals than stray people. You often hear heart-warming stories of families who’ve provided a home for dogs or cats that have been abused, or are starving. Seldom do we hear stories of Americans opening their homes to homeless people.
My wife and I are the exception: we took in a stray kitten and homeless person, and we feel very fortunate and blessed to have done so. The kitten turned out to be an excellent mouser (we call her Dr Pepper) and she keeps our yard and house mouse-free. The homeless man who now resides with us was sleeping in his car and almost died of pneumonia two years ago. We invited him to recuperate and he now lives in our back house. He is an excellent handyman and does odd jobs for us (for which we pay him). He also takes care of our home when we travel. Having him as our guest is a win-win. 
History shows that Americans are more inclined to show compassion to animals than to people, even children. Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals were founded before Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. John Myers explains how organized child protection began in the United States:

Organized child protection emerged from the rescue in 1874 of nine-year-old Mary Ellen Wilson, who lived with her guardians in one of New York City's worst tenements, Hell's Kitchen. Mary Ellen was routinely beaten and neglected. A religious missionary to the poor named Etta Wheeler learned of the child's plight and determined to rescue her. Wheeler consulted the police, but they declined to investigate. Next, Wheeler sought assistance from child helping charities, but they lacked authority to intervene in the family. At that time, of course, there was no such thing as child protective services, and the juvenile court did not come into existence for a quarter century. Eventually, Wheeler sought advice from Henry Bergh, the influential founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Bergh asked his lawyer, Elbridge Gerry, to find a legal mechanism to rescue the child. Gerry employed a variant of the writ of habeas corpus to remove Mary Ellen from her guardians. 12 Following the rescue of Mary Ellen, animal protection advocate Henry Bergh and his attorney Elbridge Gerry lamented the fact that no government agency or nongovernmental organization was responsible for child protection. Bergh and Gerry decided to create a nongovernmental charitable society devoted to child protection, and thus was born the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC), the world's first entity devoted entirely to child protection. Gerry became president of NYSPCC and served in that capacity into the twentieth century. (

I am pleased that Pasadena is a city where many care deeply about homeless people as well as stray pets. Once a year hundreds of volunteers go around the city of Pasadena and survey  those who living on the streets. The purpose of the survey is to identify the needs of the unhoused so we can apply for funds and provide needed services. Our city has excellent homeless services compared to many neighboring cities, and our homeless population has declined as a result of policies like Housing First, but there are still far too many people on the street. Here are some statistics:

 According to The City of Pasadena 2012 Homeless Count, on a given night there are more than 900 homeless adults and children who are either sleeping on the streets or in a residential program that serves homeless persons;

According to 2010 U.S. Census data, there are more than 21,000 adults and children that make up nearly 8,000 households that have an annual income of $15,000 or less (The Network considers these households to be the-most-at-risk-to-homelessness).

Also, according to 2010 U.S. Census, approximately 19,000 14 percent of Pasadena residents were in poverty. Nineteen percent of related children under 18 were below the poverty level, compared with 13 percent of people 65 years old and over. Thirteen percent of all families and 23 percent of families with a female householder and no husband present had incomes below the poverty level.

Poverty is a stark and troubling reality in America that politicians seldom mention, and most Americans are in denial about. The wealthy keep getting wealthier, and their homes keep getting bigger, while the poor keep getting poorer and many are homeless. As homeless populations increased, the average size of American homes has doubled in the last 50 years. Most homeowners have far more space than they need. When we open our hearts, and our homes, to the poor, we could not only relieve their plight, we also save our souls and the soul of our city.
Jesus makes it clear in his parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man that helping the poor is not simply an option, it is a requirement if we want to enter the kingdom of heaven (in this life and in the life to come). The Book of Acts makes it clear that one of the top priorities of a truly Christian community is to end poverty and homelessness. (The other priority is to provide free health care to all.) The early Christian community is described as a place where “there were no needy persons among them. Those who owned properties or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds from the sales, and lay them at the apostles' feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need.” In Act 4:34 it defines "believers" by their actions, not by their theological beliefs: "All those who had believed were together and had all things in common;  and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.” Acts 2:45.

Ending poverty was not merely an ideal for early Christians, it was a clear demonstration of their living faith. We need to take to heart their example. We can end homelessness and poverty in America. Programs like Housing First show that ending chronic homelessness is not only doable, it is cost effective. We are a rich nation, and Pasadena is becoming an increasingly rich city We who have means have a moral obligation to put our faith into practice and end homelessness. Si, se puede! 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Dr. Jill Shook speaks out for justice at the IMA's Martin Luther King Day celebration

Yesterday my wife Jill, aka Dr. Shook, spoke at the Martin Luther King Day celebration at the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Altadena. This event was sponsored by the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance (IMA), Pasadena's oldest association of African American Pastors. Even though Jill is not a pastor or African American, she has formed such a deep relationship with the African American community that she was entrusted with the responsibility to speak out on issues of social justice. (Jill has been involved with the IMA for over 17 years!) I am very proud of Jill and want others to be able to read  her important message, which is why I am including it in this blog The only other woman speaker at this event was Judy Chu, our local Congressional representative, who spoke out about the need to restore portions of the Voting Rights Act that was gutted by the Supreme Court, thereby enabling states like Texas to pass voter ID and other laws that have disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of people, many of them poor, people of color, the elderly, etc. The spirit of MLK was definitely present at this year's IMA event!

Here is the message that Jill shared:
       I grew up in lily white Orange County. Not one black attended any of my schools from Kindergarten through high school. Since embracing Christ as my Savior in high school, I have attended countless churches in many states and countries where I’ve lived and the color of most of these congregations are not much different than during in my school years, including some a number of the churches and schools here in Pasadena little to no diversity. In Ephesians 2 we are commanded by the love of Christ to break down this divide. 
Today I feel deeply honored to be here today to help bridge that divide. I have been a member of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance for over 15 years. I love these pastors and I feel genuine love from them. I am so much richer now by having African American friends. I want that same rich experience for everyone so that hearts across this nation will see the beauty, know the courage and feel love I have experienced by being part of this community.
But simply getting to know and love each other is only a start. A very important start, but not enough. Love dictates that we both seek to understand the issues that divide us and to break down those barriers.
As I began to research the history of US housing policy I was amazed at how racial covenants that disallowed people of color were prominte in Pasadena as well as red lining by the bank, preventing people of color from obtaining loans and mortgage insurance. When the 210 freeway sliced right through middle of a thriving African American business district hundred of family were displaced without sufficient money to replace their homes. These same policies affect every city across the US. The long shadows of those neighborhood patterns set years ago, continue today, perpetuating stereotypes, fears and unspoken dividing walls between NW and the rest of the city.
I will never forget the day that I was trying to make a left turn from Washington onto Fair Oaks and a funeral procession was passing. The signal changed about ten times before I could turn. I was first in line and could see the faces of each person who turned in front of me. Not one was white. I couldn’t imagine how someone could live their entire lives in Pasadena and not know one white person well enough to attend their funeral. But then I recall my own segregated upbringing and the more I come to know and love the African American community, I better understand some of the oppressive and unjust policies, the disenfranchisement and cultural dynamics that keep us divided.
Dr. King also spoke about signals. He said that, “There is nothing wrong with a traffic law which says you have to stop for a red light. But when a person is bleeding, the ambulance goes through those red lights at top speed… Disinherited people all over the world are bleeding to death from deep social and economic wounds. They need brigades of ambulance drivers who will have to ignore the red lights of the present system until the emergency is solved.”[i]
Right now our nation is bleeding. The hemorrhage needs to stop. Dr. Martin Luther King has demonstrated to us that it can be stopped, Fair housing and Civil rights laws can be passed. Just as Jesus and MKK stood with the most vulnerable in our city, today the IMA is standing for justice.  With the love of Christ and the power of God and community we can change these very systems that are broken. Those standing with the police shooting of unarmed Michael Brown have helped bring to light a blind spot in our nation. We need God’s light to bring changes to police policies and culture. Like people across the nation standing with the people of Ferguson I thank God for the IMA’s willingness to stand with the family of Kendric McDade.
In 2012, Kendric McDade, a 19 year old black man was shot seven times by the Pasadena police with all their surveillance equipment turned off.  To prevent this from happening again, over the past year, the IMA has played a key role in the Coalition for Increased Oversight of the Pasadena Police (CICOPP). In this group’s research they have concluded that the best plan to prevent these unnecessary shootings if is for the city to hire a police auditor. Please turn to page ___ in your programs and take time read more about IMAs involvement in this and other justice concerns, for example, the PUSD adopt a school program, support for a Housing Commission to increase the number of affordable housing units and support the nurses at Huntington Hospital to organize so they can provide better patient care.  Please consider how you can play a supporting role, perhaps call you council representative, organized other in your church to so.  And as you leave today, please take time to talk with those in the back supporting the nurses. I want to know if you are a nurse or know a nurse. Please raise your hand. Now I ask that you stand with me for the nurses in our city.
To honor Dr. Martin Luther King and stand with his commitment a spirituality that led to non-violent social change, I ask you again stand with me now if you support real change in police oversight. 
In closing I want to say that I am also very proud of the IMA for being listed among those on lawsuit to make public the independent review of what happened that night that Kendric was shot. For this full report to be released, God will need to move in many hearts. Pastor A.K. Brown, who has been the pastor for Anya Slaughter, the mother of Kendric McDade since she was three, will close my time with a very brief prayer the courage and wisdom for IMA to continue to stand strong on the side of justice.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

WWKD? What would King do?

How terrible it will be for you! You build monuments for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them! Luke 11:47

On this day honoring Rev Dr Martin Luther King, one of America’s great prophets, I think of this quotation from Jesus which we recently pondered in our neighborhood Bible study. Invited to dine with the religious elite, Jesus challenged the hypocrisy of those who liked to quote the prophets but lived in complicity with the Roman empire. Today many religious leaders and politicians like to memorialize King with platitudes about the American dream but carefully avoid mentioning the “radical revolution of values” which Rev King advocated.
Jesus’ quote is also apt because many (including Martin Luther King’s family) believe that King was assassinated with the complicity from the US government because of his views on Vietnam and economic justice.
So on this special day I’d like to honor those I feel are truly living in the spirit of MLK.

 Those who are advocating for police oversight. In his sermon at Riverside Church (1968), King made himself very unpopular in government circles with this statement: “I realized I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today - my own government.” Those in power don’t like to be reminded how state power is being abused by the police and the military. For this reason, I’d like to lift up local efforts to provide oversight for the police in Pasadena and other parts of the country. Here in Pasadena Kris Ockhauser, Michelle White and others have started the Coalition for Increased Civilian Oversight of Pasadena Police (CICOPP).  which is advocating for an independent “Police Auditor” to investigate charges of police misconduct and report directly to the City Council. The Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, a coalition of black pastors (including my wife Jill, who is neither a pastor nor black!), has joined the ACLU, NAACP and others calling for the full disclosure of an independent report about the police killing of Kendrec McDade, an unarmed 19-year-old African American. (The Pasadena Police Union is fiercely fighting to prevent this report from being made public and is doing its utmost to influence religious leaders.) Jill will be speaking about the need for police oversight at the IMA Martin Luther King event on Sunday. King would be pleased: he was always on the side of those who want accountability for those who wield power!

Those who are advocating for systemic change to end homelessness. Given the obscene disparities of wealth and the history of oppression, King felt that more than charity was needed:  True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” King would be pleased by efforts not simply to alleviate homelessness with shelters and feedings, but to end homelessness through affordable housing and programs like Housing First.  

Those who are working for a living wage. King came to realize that we need to do more than simply provide equal opportunity for all people, we also need to address systemic economic injustice: ”We are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create hell for the poor.” Here in Pasadena, Francisco Garcia and others are leading a coalition to bring a living wage ordinance, similar to the one that Mayor Garcetti is proposing for Los Angeles. This is a small, but much needed step towards alleviating poverty.

Those who are opposing militarism. King realized that we couldn’t end poverty as long as half of our taxes went to support war: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” I especially want to lift up Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace which was founded after 9/11 and works tirelessly to end war and torture, and has as its slogan: "Religious Communities Must Stopping Blessing War and Violence." One of the founders of our organization was Rev James Lawson, who helped teach Dr. King the nonviolent methods of Gandhi.

The phrase "What would Jesus do?" (often abbreviated to WWJD) became popular in the United States in the 1990s as a personal motto for adherents of Evangelical Christianity. For Christians who care about the Prince of Peace, I’d like to suggest “WWKD?” (“What would King Do?”) as a motto for those seeking to live in the spirit of Dr. King. For example would Martin Luther King be pleased by the presence of the military bands and units in a parade supposedly honoring him? This is what happens every year in Los Angeles, and probably other parts of the US as well.  (See King’s radical message of peace and justice has been watered down, whitewashed and “neutered” (a word used by Randy Christopher, Director of Pasadena’s Pace and Justice Academy). I am grateful for those who truly understand the spirit of King and speak out prophetically, as did several teenagers at the Martin Luther King event in Pasadena two years ago. At that time, I wrote the following blog entry:
Madeline Cameron, a 16-year-old high school student from the Pasadena Peace and Justice Academy…spoke about Martin Luther King's commitment to peace, his courage in speaking out against the Vietnam war, and how we have been embroiled in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have cost countless lives and taken money away from needed social programs. She also brought up the infamous wall separating the United States and Mexico, and how US economic policies have left Mexican farmers destitute and forced many to come here to earn a liveliness. She spoke with great feeling of the hundreds who have died trying to cross the border to find work in the United States.
She spoke from the heart, and with real knowledge, about issues that Dr King would cared deeply about.
"She truly understands Dr. King," I thought, my eyes brimming with tears.
I am pleased that I now teach “Faith Studies” at the Peace and Justice Academy, a school that seeks to embody the spirit of King, Gandhi and Jesus. What a blessing it is to share the radical gospel of King and Jesus with the rising generation!

PS All of the quotes in red from Dr. King were read to my middle school class at the Peace and Justice Academy. After we read these quotes aloud, a twelve-year-old said, "Is that why they killed him?" It was clear to him that challenging the war system in America could get you killed!