Christian community developers can ‘make America great again’

The Dallas Street Choir, directed by Jonathan Palant, sings at the No Need Among You Conference. The choir, whose members are homeless and disadvantaged people, will perform next year at Carnegie Hall and the Washington National Cathedral. (Photo/Ken Camp)

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DALLAS—Christians who work together in community development can become “the ones who actually make America great again,” Jeremy Everett of the Texas Hunger Initiative told participants at the No Need Among You Conference in Dallas.

One American child in five lives in poverty, and more than 40 million Americas are food insecure, meaning they lack reliable access to nutritious food, said Everett, founding director of the Baylor University-based initiative. In Texas, the number of children in poverty rises to one in four, and along the Texas/Mexico border, half of the children live in poverty, he added.

Jeremy Everett 200Jeremy Everett “We can do better than that,” he told the conference at Cliff Temple Baptist Church in Dallas, sponsored by the Texas Christian Community Development Network.

Power of collaboration

As a member of the bipartisan National Commission on Hunger, Everett experienced firsthand the power of collaboration when commission members—half of them appointed by Republican and half by Democratic officials in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives—reached more than 20 consensus recommendations.

“When we work for justice, it’s important how we do it,” he said.

Describing some of his early “clumsy justice work” as a community organizer, he recalled how attempts to speak prophetically can be perceived a strident and divisive.

“We need to build trust and work collaboratively,” he said. “That brings reconciliation and ultimately healing.”

Community development workers need to keep in mind big-picture policies as well as local needs when they seek solutions to hunger and poverty, Everett said.

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“We have to work at the local, state and national levels all at the same time,” he said.

That demands multiple levels of collaboration and cooperation, he insisted.

“When we come together and work together in community, that is when transformation happens,” he said.

Courage required to deliver shalom

Helping vulnerable people demands courage, said Sami DiPasquale, executive director of Ciudad Nueva, a community development organization based in El Paso.

Christians can be deliverers of “shalom,” a Hebrew word often translated as “peace,” DiPasquale noted.

“Shalom is not merely the absence of conflict,” he said. “Shalom is the way God intended our world to be. Shalom is what we want for our communities.”

Delivering shalom requires Christians to stretch beyond their comfort zones for the sake of hurting people and for the sake of the gospel, he said.

“Be willing to enter into places of difficulty and be the presence of Christ there,” he urged.

Tranformational power of education

Damon Lopez, founder of Turn Around Schools and No Excuses University, described his experiences as principal at an elementary school in San Diego, Calif., that moved from the “underperforming” categorization to being ranked as an exemplary National Blue Ribbon School.

Damen Lopez 200Damen LopezNow he helps schools across the country create what he calls “a culture of universal achievement” that enables children to move from generational poverty to become successful students in college.

“There is one thing as powerful as the cycle of poverty, and that is the power of education,” he said.

Lopez sees his work as a divine calling.

“I measure success by how many lives I change,” he said. “God desires to give us purpose—to bring joy to our lives and to the lives of others. … Our greatest rewards are always discovered after we make a bold choice.”

Escaping the ‘iron cage’ of generational poverty

Education can be transformative, but educators need to understand how to communicate with students trapped in generational poverty, said Donna Beegle, founder of Communication Across Barriers.

Beegle recalled growing up in abject poverty, not understanding the words her teachers used in class or the examples they cited. When she told a teacher she planned to drop out of school, the teacher told her she never would be able to get a job without earning her diploma.

“I didn’t want a job,” she said. “I saw people working my whole life, and they were still evicted, and they were still hungry.”

Donna Beegle 200Donna Beegle When the teacher said “job,” she meant a career that would sustain a decent lifestyle. But all Beegle could think about were the people she knew—migrant agricultural workers who labored long hours and died young but couldn’t earn a living wage.

“Growing up, I didn’t know people lived past 60,” she said. “I didn’t know people past 30 had teeth.”

Beegle grew up with five brothers, all of whom spent time incarcerated.

“They were in there for the same kinds of things I did. I just didn’t get caught,” she said. “Poverty doesn’t always allow you to be good.”

By age 26, Beegle was a divorced mother of two living children, having lost one child at age 17. But she enrolled in a transitional program for women that enabled her to earn her GED.

After attending a two-year community college, she continued her education at the University of Portland. where a professor and mentor offered to teach her the language skills she never gained in elementary school. By age 36, Beegle earned her doctorate.

“I am now bilingual. I speak fluent middle-class English,” she said, although she acknowledged she still has a tendency to lapse into bad grammatical patterns when she is fatigued.

American society remains deeply segregated by class, Beegle said.

“We know not everyone has the same chance. So, why do we treat them like they do?” she asked.

“We cannot break the iron cage (of generational poverty) unless we are poverty-informed. … If you are judging, you can’t connect. If you can’t connect, how can you communicate? We don’t teach about poverty. … We need to fight the poverty, not the people who live in it.”

With additional reporting by Editor Marv Knox.

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