Friday, June 22, 2007

Reflections on the Kensington Fire

I had just been planning to post some reflections on Shane Claiborne’s book, Irresistible Revolution, when I learned that Shane and his community, the Simple Way had been caught in a terrible warehouse fire that has burned for several days this week in the Kensington section of Philadelphia and temporarily displaced over 100 people and close to 30 families. At this point eight families lost their homes. Among those affected were members of the Simple Way . Two members lost all their belongings. In addition a community center, an after school program, an arts center, and a t-shirt micro-business all connected the Simple Way were lost in the fire. A full description with video can be found on the Simple Way’s web site: (

For those who are not familiar with Shane Claiborne or the Simple Way, let me provide some background. Over ten years ago a group of Eastern University students got involved with the Kensington Welfare Rights organization during an occupation of an abandoned Roman Catholic cathedral to protest the lack of affordable and available housing for the poor. The students were so changed by the experience that upon graduation they relocated to Kensington to form an intentional Christian community. Their purpose was to live in community with the impoverished people of Kensington, to try to be a positive influence in the neighborhood, and “to discover another way of doing life.” The Simple Way is part a movement called the “new monasticism,” a network of small house churches and groups across the country who have sought to integrate a concern for positive social change, solidarity with the poor, intentional community and classic Christian spirituality. For ten years the Simple Way, who calls it self an “a 501c3 anti-profit organization” have lived and worked in that community.

In Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne tells the story of the Simple Way, and raises some poignant and powerful questions about the nature of our society and the implications of our lifestyles and value choices. I have been challenged by the book and was going to share some of my struggles, but then the fire hit. So I will save those thoughts for another day.

One of the things that impresses me about the new monasticism in general and the Simple Way in particular, is that they are not just another group of liberal Christian do-gooders come to “help the poor.” Claiborne does not talk about “serving the poor” or ‘helping the poor,” but rather about living in interdependent community with the people of Kensington and loving them. He makes the point that poverty is not an abstraction, but rather people with whom one shares life. He says that the tragedy of economic disparity in our country is not merely the maldistribution of wealth, but also that poor people and rich people do not know each other because they literally live in different worlds. If the poor, middle class and rich all lived in proximity, redistribution of wealth would happen more naturally and spontaneously. As he writes:

"I am not a communist or a capitalist. As one person put it: 'When we truly discover love, capitalism will not be possible and Marxism will not be necessary.'”

Unfortunately, the risk of living interdependently with poor people in the current economic environment is that one suffers the indignities and vulnerability to tragedy that poor people face every day.

Thus, the Simple Way lost everything in the Kensington fire because they had consciously committed themselves to be part of the fabric of that community, and now that fabric has been severely damaged. Because of its worldwide network of friends and supporters, the Simple Way will be able to generate a great deal of support for the people of Kensington, and will most likely find a way to regroup and start over. Having experienced a similar fire 30 years ago (though not the personal loss) when I was living in Boston, I know that the emotional trauma of such an event is as difficult to overcome for a community as is helping people regain some material and financial stability in their lives. But in time, if they choose to do so, the people of Kensington and the Simple Way will be able to move forward with their lives.

The sad thing is that if it were not for the Simple Way, I and thousands of others would have regarded the Kensington fire as just another tragic and awful event that daily occur in low income communities across the nation and world… and then we would have gone on with our lives because we weren’t affected. Ironically and sadly, the Simple Way’s tragedy has brought home the very point Shane Claiborne makes: that we who are middle and upper class are largely disconnected from those folks who are poor, and do not see or appreciate the humanity of those folks who live in places like Kensington.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Immigration: Solving the Wrong Problem

This week Congress’ attempt at passing a comprehensive immigration bill went down the tubes. The bill was an attempt to find a compromise on an issue that has deeply divided the Congress and the nation. The debate on immigration has focused on two questions: (1) How are we going to stop the flow of undocumented immigrants? And (2) What are we going to do with 12 million undocumented immigrants already here? And yet, even if it had somehow passed, the bill would only have been a short term band-aid at best.

Why? We are not solving the correct problem, or to paraphrase Stephen Covey, the author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “The way we see the problem is the problem.” To date the debate in Congress has characterized the immigration issue as a national issue, but in fact the issue is a regional issue. Until our leaders are willing to engage the business community and the other governments involved in seeking a transnational and just agreement, no reasonable or effective solution can be found.

Nearly a year ago(9/4/2006), David Sirota of the San Francisco Chronicle (among others) asked the pertinent question:

"Why do so many Mexicans come to America in the first place? The answers to this question revolve around the concept of supply and demand – and they tell us about how to address illegal immigration and overcome the core economic challenges facing middle class America.”

Fact: Many Mexican are willing to risk their lives to enter the United States illegally because they are desperate to find a better life. In supply and demand terms, the supply of jobs in Mexico that one can subsist on is far less than the demand for such jobs."

The President, the Congress, and we the American people are failing to address this real issue of why people are coming here: incredible suffering and injustice propagated by NAFTA and opportunistic corporations.

In 1992 the Congress led by Pres. Bill Clinton, passed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was designed to allow for the free flow of capital and goods/services across the Canadian, Mexican and U.S. borders. However, the agreement did not allow for was the free flow of labor. In short NAFTA gave the corporations the ability to flow freely across borders without allowing workers to do the same.

NAFTA enabled unscrupulous companies to move their operations from the U.S. to Mexico, thereby avoiding environmental regulations and bypassing workplace safety rules. Moreover, these same companies were able to escape paying U.S. workers living wage and exploit cheap Mexican labor where people would work for $5-7 a day. At the same time U.S. farmers and retailers like Wal-Mart were able to flood Mexican markets with American goods that put local Mexican workers and farmers out of business. Since NAFTA was passed, nearly 800,000 jobs have been lost in Mexico and 1 million jobs in the United States. The winners in this deal have not been the workers, but rather large transnational corporations, large retailers, a well-entrenched Mexican elite and U.S. employers who now exploiting undocumented workers in the U.S. with “under the table” sub-minimum wages. No wonder the U.S. business community likes President Bush’s bill – it serves their interests even as it continues to exploit the working class folks on both sides of the border. (See New York Times 2/18/2007)

The sad truth is that without significant pressure from citizen and labor groups, most leaders in the U.S. and Mexico will not address the real issue. The current situation serves the business community quite fine, thank you. The media and the Congress (who are controlled by business interests) conveniently divert us with the meaningless debates about a 700 mile long border fence and the hiring of more border agents. Vigilante groups spout words of hate in the name of patriotism. Conservative groups and labor unions fight the bill seeking to preserve their special interests and miss the larger picture. And all the time, some very powerful people are profiting handsomely..

Richard Alba, sociology professor from the University of Albany (NY) has pointed out that the U.S. could learn a great deal from the European Union (EU). When the EU countries opened their borders to free trade, they also opened up their borders for workers to travel freely as well. Instead of destroying national economies, it strengthened them, because the EU leaders recognized their challenges were regional rather than national. Unfortunately, the U.S. government has either unconsciously or deliberately failed to learn from the Europeans. (See http://borderbattles/

Instead migrants are characterized as “lawbreakers” and accused of “taking jobs away from Americans,” when the real criminals sit in government buildings and corporate offices. Until we are willing to address the real “illegals” and address the root of the problem, nothing will get accomplished.

Sadly, what I am saying here is neither new nor novel. A simple Google search with the key words “Immigration” and “NAFTA” led me to numerous reputable sources from commentators far more knowledgeable than me. I am reminded of a saying from Harry Nilsson’s classic story “The Point”: “We see what we want to see, and hear what we want to hear.” Until we want to address the real problem, we will only see mirages and tilt at windmills.