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1992 Wriston Lecture: Where The Hope Is

Saturday November 1992

Event Transcript

Good evening to each of you; I greet you with the word "peace" and I bid goodwill to each of you.

I want to, at the very outset, let you know that I am honored that the invitation to speak on this occasion of the Wriston Lectures would be extended to me. To me, Johnny Ray Youngblood: African-American, father, husband, pastor, teacher, and one of a number of leaders in my particular community, in this city of promise.

Know that I am not unaware of the fact that there are a number of other men and women who qualify and could carry out this task in a most effective way. However, since you asked me and my schedule allowed me to and you did not tie my hands, I thank you and trust that Providence will perform a perfect work.

To the Trustees of the Institute particularly, I say thank you! And again, I am honored.

I think that I need to inform you that I am possessed of a deep sense of honor and humility that the leaders, members, and homeowners of East Brooklyn Congregations, and the officers and members of the Saint Paul Community Baptist Church would give me their blessing toward this occasion. And even now they pray and cross their fingers that our gathering might be life-enhancing to the many—ourselves included.

To the members of St. Paul Community and the East Brooklyn Congregations who are here, you are my letters to the Creator.

Sometimes it can be quite volatile to put a black Baptist preacher on to speak and give him too much leisure. However, it can also be volatile to ignore his presence and long-standing effectiveness.

The story is told of a dilemma that existed on an occasion similar to this. According to tradition, a medical convention was scheduled for a certain city. The arrangements committee was torn as to how to include and where to place a respected and outstanding Baptist cleric. You see, he had a reputation for being long-winded; that is, he was so conscious of eternity that he tended to be oblivious to clocks and calendars. So the committee knew that wherever they placed him, they had better strategically narrow the possibilities of his taking flight and going on and on and on. Someone remembered that the last day's theme for this medical convention was "pills" and they thought there was just no way that he could take this subject "pills" and leverage it for a half-hour discourse. Well, the invitation was extended and accepted, the program was printed, and the time arrived. It was the benediction that this preacher was to pronounce. The moment and the man met, and with that characteristic dignity of senior ministers, he rose and said to all those experts in medicine: "I thank you for inviting me, and I have wondered why you have saved me for the last day, to do the last order of business, the benediction. Now I know! I have been here all day. I have sat through every session. I have heard you speak of pill after pill after pill, and the place of pills in every conceivable aspect of human existence. You've talked about every pill but one and that's the "Gos-pill." So for a little while I want to talk about the "Gos-pill."

I do not lay claim to being an expert in any of the fields that are represented here tonight. Rather, I come tonight because I see myself and the thousands that I represent as integral, key, and inevitable pieces of the mosaic that is the reality and mayoral image of our metropolis in which we live, labor and intend to leave as a legacy.

I am here tonight with you because the organizations and congregations of East Brooklyn Churches, South Bronx Churches, Queens Citizens Organization, and Harlem Initiatives Together have decided that our participation in the democratic processes of our communities and city must never again be seen by ourselves or others as marginal or optional. The truth must be known, a message must go out to those who have declared us marginal and optional by their deeds and declarations. No longer true, if indeed it ever was.

We have come to flex our democratic muscle by way of this awakening to our place and power in the scheme of things.

This truth sets us all free, "all" meaning not just us, but those who opt out because they are not us. Those who would need to be delivered from their: top-down, ivory tower, isolationist, individualistic, theoretical, special interest, polarizing, ahistorical, non-creative mindsets! You know who they are—they legislate us out and by some perverted power or miracle turn red tape into red cable in the name of government for the people, by the people—thereby making access impossible. They euphemistically label these "hoops and hurdles."

And let me report to you that the dues exacted because of this inaccessibility are the precious time and dignity of those of us who seek our right to access.

You see, our understanding of democracy is that if the engagement and arrangement is not participatory, it is dehumanizing and ultimately defeating to all: me, them, us, and you! In this kind of lifestyle there is no hope. No hope for the aggregation, allies, and adversaries or even the self-alienated.

If we are going to have a hope and engender that hope to others, we must first see the distress we are in. these words come from Nehemiah—the organizer, builder, leader of the New Jerusalem.

Please don't take offense. this is a speech, not a sermon. I hope and trust that you are open to the fact that this is my source of inspiration and information. I spend my life reading and trying to understand it, garnering from the great stories of hope and promise.

Nehemiah said, "see the distress we're in."

Substantive hope demands that we see the distress we are in.

See it! Use our eyes! Exercise our power of vision!

If we are not careful we will miss the quintessence of "seeing the distress."

We all assume we see the distress, don't we? We are New Yorkers, big-city people, people surrounded by crises, problems, threats, dangers everyday. Of course we see the distress.

We say we see it. We assume we see it. We take for granted we see it. We even boast about seeing it to those from calmer parts of the country. But, I question whether we really, really see it.

If we really saw the distress as the monster that it really is eye to eye, face to face and confronted it, so to speak, we would never come up with the responses that pass for solutions to the distress: Another government program, another bureaucracy or an enlarged bureaucracy, another plea for government money or wishful thinking.

We are all in it! We are all a part of it! We, who say government is the answer. We, who say privatization is the answer. Anyone who waves either wand at the distress that we are in, does not see it, and does not see that they are part of the distress. John Donne has stated: "No man is an island entire of itself ... every man is a piece of the continent; a part of the main. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

So seeing the distress means that we come to grips with the fact that we are in this together and that the incompetence and narrowness of the public sector and the incompetence and narrowness of the private sector area are all part of the distress.

Nehemiah saw the distress that all, himself included, were in. So must we!

Then, according to Nehemiah, upon seeing the distress that we are in, we do not despair, giving, over to the distress but, rather, we come together to rebuild.

Talk about substantive hope! Here, implies Nehemiah, when we see the mutuality of the distress we give birth to the possibility of mutual deliverance. That we be no more a reproach!

Come, let us rebuild. This is not only a call to look each other in the eye and to see ourselves through each other's eye, but to confront something within ourselves, as individuals and small groups; confront fears, eradicate prejudices, reevaluate history (public and private), and brave new relationships. For as the physical aspects of the New Jerusalem are being rebuilt there is a simultaneous rebuilding of those that make up the citizenry.

Now there is an art to coming together and this must not be taken for granted.

For the past twelve years we have come together under the creative orchestration of the Industrial Areas Foundation. We are families, neighborhoods, congregations that come together across the lines of race, ethnicity and religion. We saw our distress; the fate and destiny of our children and our institutions were in the hands of those who didn't know us and didn't want to know us. There is possibly another wrinkle to this. There were and, yes, are some who think they know us, but they see us through stereo typically tinted lenses. And there are those who don't want to know us out of blissful ignorance and paralyzing fear, two off springs incubated in the womb of racism and capitalistic greed.

Little do they know, we have not always wanted to come together with them either.

But we see ourselves differently and hence we see them differently.

We run actions on ourselves.

We talk with each other.

We engage our allies.

We even maintain rapport with adversaries.

We organize offensively—both definitions may be applicable.

But what I specifically mean here is not from the survivor or supplicant posture.

We are the subject of our own stories as opposed to the object of someone else's story.

We convene and we intend to schedule conventions, but our relationships and our strategies and agendas are unconventional.

We get our definition of love from our Judeo-Christian roots, not Hollywood. Therefore out of love for our neighborhoods, families, congregations, and city, we both expose and enable.

We request and confront in love. We never ask politicians to do what they do not have the authority or wherewithal to perform. They may lack the political will but that's another story.

Sometimes they do not want to do it for us or, because it was not their idea, they eke out support. Sometimes they've sold their rights to people who would like to buy us and ours as well.

What we know is, where there is a will, there is a way.

Permit me a personal testimony. I'm an immigrant from the bayous of Louisiana. I came to New York to do better; I came to New York to "make it." Upon my arrival, all I heard was how bad and mad things and people were. I continuously heard about "the good old days." "New York has seen its best days."

Persons were still being elected to office, programs were still being set up, and talk of fluctuating funds continued to be the topic of concern. "Why now, when I arrived?" I wondered. Am I personally responsible, I would periodically ask myself. I came to "make it!"

Well, since I've started seeing and coming together with others, my definition of "making it" has changed.

"Making it" meant to put a roof over my head, my family's security, to soar in my parish work. I discovered my vision was too common and my goals were too limited. I now know that I am my brother's keeper and my brother is mine.

We are so glad that "the silly season" is over. You know "the silly season": that period wherein certain individuals declare themselves candidates for the highest office in the land, and spend enormous amounts of money, telling us how they are going to save us money. They spend time and energy selling us promises that are seldom kept. One tells us about something that he has little information on, the other ekes out information enough to bend our vision to his. The third tells us not to trust the other two, he will get the job done. Silly! And let's not forget the vicious senatorial race—$20,000,000 and not one issue pertinent to us was discussed.

It's a terrible thing to be ignored; to be treated as if you are not.

For us now, November third and any other comparative date is the low point of Democracy. November third: the auditor time line revealing the escalating cost of the isolated vote. If we vote on November third as though it was a miraculous, Cairotic moment, hope will take a permanent vacation, and history will become a record of the same old mistakes made over and over again.

The difference between November third and November fourth is the difference between the wedding and the marriage. Too much emphasis on the wedding throws the marriage into reverse, sets the driver up for disappointment, and is even detrimental to pedestrians. November fourth is real politics for us!

If we rely on November third only, the homeless population will increase; the economic deficit will rise; miseducation will remain the order of the day; health care will become a nightmare in and of itself; crime will become a more attractive career for white collars, blue collars, and those with no shirt at all, particularly African-Americans, my brothers and sisters, sons and daughters; poverty will surely be lifted by the world as America's great contradiction; the fires of racial hatred will be fueled and the city will become an inferno; family values will not be necessary for there will be no families to incubate or inculcate these values, again particularly in communities of people of color and language. Our churches, synagogues, mosques and temples will swell for a season, merely to empty because of hopes and dreams deferred.

Langston Hughes put it poetically, "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore and then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar like syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?"

No! No! No! November third is not it. The president-elect cannot do it alone. And somebody needs to tell him and his family and staff that they cannot do it alone. They need us, and we must make ourselves available that we might together save the central cities of America and the families and institutions that are so central to the central cities. It's November fourth. In fact it's November twelfth—later than you think! You see, "pulling the lever" is more privilege than responsibility. The hope is in our sensing, seeing, saying, and strategizing our responsibility in the democratic process. As it pertains to lever-pulling, private and partisan sectors are narrowly self-interested. Lever-pulling isolates and polarizes. And the one with the most votes not necessarily the winner. The survivor then maintains existence by catering to special interests.

We decided that for our families and communities to be made whole that we must diagnose the illnesses and become primary architects in the prognosis toward rehabilitation.

So we recognize that we are special and we have interests.

The art of building relationships, the craft of weaving and reweaving the strands of relationships that hold us together in a society, is so little understood and practiced that we are on the brink of political and social threats that we have not yet imagined. We live and work and worship in a city of schools—business schools, social work schools, nursing schools, education schools. But these schools have largely failed to teach the simple art of coming together across the boundaries of race, class, and gender in public relationships. They teach technique. They teach content. But they haven't taught the art of relationships. We have police officers and teachers and nurses and pastors and rabbis who do not understand the medium of their message—the medium of and wisdom and trust to be transmitted. "Come, let us . . ."

Like seeing the distress, the simplicity is deceptive. And because we are deceived—because we think we understand the art of relationships, or have grown tired of practicing it, or believe it is something for those much younger and of lesser status than ourselves—we don't know why things don't work so well. We don't why the new program fails. We don't know why the additional money gets squandered. We don't know why the technical solution doesn't work.

But let's get back to the substance of hope. First, we must see; then see ourselves as part of the distress; and then call one another together in public relationship; and then rebuild. In a way, the rebuilding of the city is the easy part. Some of the hope, I call it short-term hope, is in bricks, books, street signs, a trustworthy police presence, accountable supermarket managers, and responsive public servants.

But the long-term hope is in the evolution of leaders, fathers, mothers, teachers, clergy, private-sector individuals, and government officials who will see and come together.

Men, women, and children; black, white, Latinos; Christians, Jews, Moslems, Roman Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Pentecostals, Presbyterians; storefront cathedrals, judicatories, local congregations. All for the good of the whole: Lucille Clark, Yolanda, Genevieve Wright, Stephen Robeson, Elda Peralta, Pat Ottinger, David Nelson, Cornelia Jones, Anthony Bennett, Ronald Hudson, Randolph Williams, Michael Gecan, Frederick Williams, John Heinernier, Jack Peyton, John Powis, Leroy Howard, Sarah Plowden, Linton Gunn, Brenda Buckley, Edward Chambers, James Drake, Tony Aguilar, Sy Fliegel, Charles Schman, Ray Domanico, Felice Michetti, Bill Hammett, Major Owens, Coleman Genn, I.A.F. Metro, S.B.C., Q.C.O., E.B.C., H.I.T., and the other organizations incubating in the womb of worth and dignity. "Not just civil rights—human rights".

Why do we rebuild? Because rebuilding is healthy? Because rebuilding is aesthetically pleasing? Because rebuilding is going to get us a great reward? No. We rebuild "that we no more be a reproach." We rebuild for our own dignity. We rebuild for our own self-respect in the eyes of our fellow men and women, and for respect in the eyes of our God and our children and grandchildren.

There's hope in that! The bedrock of hope. Hope grounded in a sense of personal and communal and spiritual responsibility. Today, we are a reproach. In American cities, the public and private sectors are coming together to build convention centers, baseball fields, overgrown fish tanks, harbor and river and ocean places. More low-wage, no benefits, part-time jobs are sure to follow. Across the river, in Jersey City, chromium and lead infect the lungs, brains, and eyes of children. In New York, we have heard for two years about so-called community policing, only to learn that the police assigned to it had little or no interest. We hear almost unbelievably bad "solutions" taken seriously in policy discussions. Today, we are a reproach. And only by coming together in public relationships, only by rebuilding the foundations of the economy and the foundations of the city, will we be no more a reproach.

That gets me to my third point. Labor. "So we labored..." There isn't much real work, real labor going on in our country. Real labor in a modem city and modern economy is grounded in the percentage of time that the people we call relational workers—teachers, cops, nurses, ministers, social workers, health attendants, etc.—spend in direct and productive contact with their customers. All administration, all bureaucracy, all academic energy should be focused on increasing the quality and number of these contacts and reinforcing and developing the relational workers involved in them. Of course, we know the situation is precisely the opposite. Relational workers are considered unimportant cogs in a system that pours its money, status, and perks into administrators, consultants and bureaucrats. Everyone is a bishop, or wants to be a bishop, or thinks they have one. No one wants to be a priest. Relational work, like manufacturing work, direct work, immediate work, work requiring judgment and manipulation in the best sense—this kind of work is either unrecognized or undervalued. Without it, and without the kind of physical building of walls we have done in our East Brooklyn, we cannot build our society; we cannot be rid of the reproach.

And to do this kind of work, we must carry a spear as well as a trowel. We must defend ourselves from the attackers in the private sector who try to destroy anyone who sees any role or function for government as we do, and we must protect ourselves from the attackers in the public sector who try to co-opt or destroy anyone who suggests responses that do not multiply bureaucracy and increase the stifling power of administration. We must use the spear to ward off the simplifiers in the private sector and the complicators who are now eagerly building a new bureaucracy for themselves.

There was no real substantial hope in the Bush-Mosbacher-Baker-Kemp crowd. They lacked the direct experience; they lacked any sense of themselves as part of the distress; they lacked an understanding of relational work and its vital role; and they lacked the ability to labor with a trowel in one hand and a spear in the other. But what about Clinton-Shmoke-Cisneros-Bradley and company? I worry! Do they see themselves and their detached policy-and-program-approach as part of the distress? Do they understand the foundation of public relationships needed to rebuild our society? Do they know how to build anything physical? Do they respect physical and relational work? We'll soon see!

But, in a way, that's not the most important question. The most important question for me—and I pray for us—is: do we possess the will to do what Nehemiah did? "We" being you and me and the institutions we represent and love. Can we see the distress and that we are part of it? Can we come together in new public relationships and have a shared mission? Can we labor hard and work hard? And can we keep our adversaries at bay?

The real substance to change is all in the mix. Believe it or not, we're in this thing together. There is far more that unites us than divide us.

We are staunch believers in the iron rule: "Never do for others what they can do for themselves."

Operating on this premise, we have created space for ourselves at the decision-making tables of this city. Only tables do we sit at, no dark rooms. Democracy works!

Twelve years ago these awarenesses were realized; we trusted our gut instincts and our value systems; we challenged our fears, found our allies, confounded our enemies, engaged our strategies, and began to make history.

Twelve years later our efforts here produced almost 4,000 homes; two new high schools; refurbished subways; two primary health care centers; newly-constructed parks; community policing (not martial law); street signs; Nehemiah II education; supermarket accountability; minimal pothole problems; respect and recognition from all who count; stronger, more vibrant churches; reputable and respectful allies; a sense of family that is functioning and futuristic; and a cadre of leaders capable of carrying on without a single charismatic individual.

The New Jerusalem is in the process, our children are calling us blessed! There will be no riots in East New York. We've found a better way to be heard. It is slowly but surely approaching critical mass. We've made a dent but it's a big problem. So the dent may not be that noticeable to you. We are not as satisfied as we'd like to be. We are moving better than others who have the same concerns but we are all behind schedule.

And lest I mislead you, we have had our struggles. Yes, without others, those to whom we used to refer to as "the powers that be." But, I mean we've had our own internal struggles.

You must not make the mistake of moving and thinking historically. The victimization of people of color and the psycho-spiritual effects are deep and painful to get at and sometimes slow to heal. We must not be held responsible for a race that some would not allow us to enter, some who kept changing the route of, and disbelieved and discredited our efforts and victories. We are not blaming anyone, but the past was reality and reality works its effects.

You know, I still can't get over this arrangement tonight. This is an interesting setting and grouping. If some of your friends and associates have thought you strange for this, don't feel bad. Some of my friends and associates have questioned my being here also. Suffice it to say that this is an effort of many to give democracy's essential tenets the space to be activated.

Maybe much of what I have said to you on this occasion you knew before. If so, great. I just came by to tell you that the market for such thinking is increasing. We know it now! And that the long-term hope is not in partisan politics, money, and theories, but it's in a "new, New Deal." A "new, New Deal" wherein enterprise zones will be a hallmark of every family, congregation, and neighborhood. A new, new entrepreneurship will not be limited to a few. A "new, New Deal" wherein the Iron Rule—"never do for others what they can do for themselves "—will not be a conservative judgment hammer crushing any and all who fail to conform. A "new, New Deal" wherein short-term hope is so real you can sleep in it by night, learn in it by day and walk through it at will.

If not here, where? If not us, who? If not now, when?

We have only just a minute, only 60 seconds in it;

Forced upon us, can't refuse it; didn't seek it, didn't choose it;

But it's up to us to use it; We must suffer if we lose it; give account if we abuse it.

Just a tiny fleeting minute, but eternity is in it.

Thank you.