Growing up in California, I had the opportunity to visit many wonderful scenic areas. One of those opportunities was a visit to the Grand Canyon in the neighboring state of Arizona. If you have ever been to the Grand Canyon then you know it is an awesome spectacle of nature. As you stand above and look across the vastness of the terrain and look over at the depth of area, you get the sense of your smallness. Yet when you travel down into the canyon by foot or mule rides and looking up, look around, feeling the textures of the canyon, you gain an entirely new appreciation for the visit.
Perspective or how one views an object or situation can make all the difference in how solutions are developed. Perspective aids the artist who views her work from a different vantage point to clarify color or create depth. Perspective can aid a coach on the sidelines as he asks his quarterback what the defense is presenting from his vantage point on the field of play. Perspective offers us - nonprofit practitioners, academicians, and private citizens the opportunity to engage with greater depth, vibrancy, and innovation to develop solutions and engage in social justice, specifically, poverty.
So this morning I want us stand around a table and link arms as equitable partners to think through poverty from the perspective of the theological, the nonprofit, government, academic institutions, and importantly the poor.
Any discussion on poverty and for that matter any discussion on concerns which face the welfare of human beings I believe must have a perspective in which humanity itself is seen as a worthy and dignified object. Humanity has a dynamic and powerful origin in which the masses-regardless of nationality, ethnicity, economic class, and gender-possess a very specific quality or dynamic character which has been powerfully and purposefully woven into its very being. This dignity which has been purposefully threaded into our person is based on the goodness and righteousness of a perfect God. We are made in his image and likeness. We are crowned with royalty and strength. This sacred dignity is the commonality among all persons and this sacred dignity can not be removed from us. While men and women, systems and institutions throughout world history have done a variety of actions-legal and illegal-to diminish the dignity of men and women, I assert to you the sacred dignity present within all humanity has an origin which transcends the finite efforts of ignorance.
The sacred dignity in human beings distinguishes us from the rest of the visible and invisible creation. This statement does not diminish the sacredness of nonhuman beings such as animals, trees, or our oceans. Rather it provides us with a proper perspective on justice. A justice which considers as priority the need to affirm the dignity of persons who suffer in all types of unjust circumstances. Look at your neighbor. I challenge you to look past the hue of their skin, the length of their hair, the size of their bodies, and the title in front of their name. Look past these beautiful and useful distinctions and see what is common between the two of you. We possess a sacred dignity and because of that possession we have reason to view the poor not as objects to be solved but as men and women who are to be invited into the human process of sympathy, compassion, and poverty alleviation.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu offers a stellar example of the importance of recognizing our sacred dignity applying the concept of ubuntu. What is ubuntu? It is the concept one human being should demonstrate the sacredness of humanity to another. Why? There is the belief of a universal thread which connects all of us. Because of this interrelatedness and because there is this indestructible and powerful dignity which resides in all of us and transcends all of our racial, economic, and social barriers, we have the opportunity to affirm one another. That my ability to flourish as a human being religiously, economically, and socially depends on you flourishing as a human being as well. It is the interrelatedness of life I believe God himself has woven into our lives. It was demonstrated in teachings of Jesus who communicated compassion to poor Israelites and correction to Israelite religious leaders, a man has greater value than a donkey stuck in a ditch and a sick man has greater value to be healed rather than obey an poor interpretation of a beautiful Sabbath law.
Therefore, it is important for those who lead from a theological perspective to think and produce statements which affirm the sacredness of mankind. My Christian perspective proposes the people of God have the opportunity to affirm the sacred dignity of the human soul and body because of the resurrection. We all possess the sacred dignity which offers the opportunity to participate in a human-divine collaboration to see the poor as they truly are; human.
Let's move around the table now and see poverty from the perspective of the nonprofit. I love nonprofits. I have started two and I work to assist others to open nonprofits to address persons in low income and poverty situations. Nonprofits represent one of the best examples of human compassion coming together through intentionality or circumstance to address a social need. In the city of Conway, UCA has the privilege to collaborate with and support a variety of nonprofit organizations. Nonprofits such as CoHO, Soul Food Cafe, Bethlehem House, and CAPCA represent the formation of groups who identified a need among the poor and have sought to address that need in a particular manner. Nonprofits in my estimation function as living extensions of compassion, demonstrating mercy to those on the Jericho Road of life. Populated with a variety of volunteers, nonprofits look in the face of the hungry, smell the aroma of the man who has been homeless and without a shower for multiple days. They have heard the cries and outburst of people who have reached the end of their rope. Nonprofits similar to religious institutions enter into suffering and say, "You will not suffer alone. You will not be left out here on this dangerous path to suffer the dehumanization which can lead to emotional, psychological and physical death." These organizations leverage human and financial resources to enter into the suffering of the poor powerfully demonstrating poverty will not have the final say over the sacredness of a man, woman, or child's humanity.
This event today represents a critical resource opportunity for nonprofit organizations. Nonprofit organizations possess limited financial capital and expertise to execute a variety of tasks. Organizational tasks such as marketing, developing a technology infrastructure, creation of solid financial procedures, and human resources require skilled individuals willing to unite expertise with compassion. Service-Learning opportunities provide nonprofits with the necessary skills and individuals to develop and execute tasks which can translate into thousands of donated dollars and hours to improve services to the poor.
The Declaration of Independence, one of the world's most poignantly penned documents contains in word the reality of the sacred dignity of mankind. "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. Now as a historian, I painfully admit these words on paper have slowly found realization in the variety of American citizens. From the abolition of slavery, to women suffrage, to voting rights, and even the recent decision of same sex marriage, the ability for men and women to flourish as the Declaration of Independence declared is a long journey.
If the poor of our city are created equal then government at all levels must take steps to protect this sacred dignity creating an environment in which the poor can flourish just as powerfully as the middle and upper class. In our nation the federal government has had a mixed bag of success and failure when it comes to the poor. While I will not specifically affirm or reject a particular administration's policies to address poverty, what we can agree on is that government must approach poverty from the perspective of seeing the sacredness of the individual who participates in community. We are a society composed of autonomous persons who interact with one another on a variety of levels. As such, how can government create an environment in which the individual's hard work and creativity is not supplanted by the larger group and how can government protect the group so that it is not overcome by individual interest. This is a difficult tension we must consider. It is a shameful thing for the nation to tell the poor, "Pull yourself up ! All it takes is hard work!" when policies and regulations exist to stifle opportunities. Yet it is equally shameful for the government to seize from individuals their hard earned income and property for the good of the nation when the majority of those finances support administrative overhead and not the people its intended to aid.
I have hope for our own city government. While I am still grieved over the city's decision to prevent the opening of a highly needed crisis shelter downtown, this past summer revealed to me many people in our city prefer economic flourishing over human flourishing. Our city government needs to create policies that stimulate compassion and not stifle it through application fees and debates. The poor, like all other human beings have a desire to have profitable labor, own land, own quality lodging, and have some fun money. They need the opportunity. The poor of our city need to be seen and not hidden in some dark corner. These men and women walk our city streets. Shop in the stores and have children who attend our schools. Are they not as worthy as those who live on Round Mountain, West Conway, or Hendrix Village? Our city government can create an atmosphere in which innovative economic and educational opportunities are available for all individuals if our city government will remember in their votes the sacred dignity of all Conway residents.
As we continue to move around the table we come to the perspective of the academic. The academic institution is a beautiful place where the human mind can exercise theory, develop hypothesis, and produce information which can extend knowledge. Martin L. King Jr. stated, "the function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically." As academics I want to challenge each of you to engage with an intellectual vigor to research and develop solutions which affirm the sacred dignity of poor men and women. Your quantitative and qualitative approaches are means to affirm our humanness. Second, critically engage with the current approaches to address poverty. Nonprofits and government need to have programs observed and evaluated in order to sustain or create the best approaches to alleviate poverty. This is another benefit of service learning. Faculty and students collaborating with many of our nonprofits to create case studies and program evaluations which can offer recommendations which can stimulate the best use of resources.
This academic institution can position itself to support nonprofits as innovators to develop new approaches to homelessness, address food insecurity which impacts 19.2% of Arkansans or 560,000.00 persons. Imagine this institution leveraging its Nursing program to offer opportunities to address health concerns or those securing teacher certification developing new approaches to improve literacy in children and adults.
All of these perspectives carry great validity. Who we need to invite around the table though is who I believe possess the greatest perspective; the man or woman in poverty. It is their real life experience of being poor, homeless, unemployed, or hungry which should inform how we approach our theology, nonprofit programming, government policies, and theory development. Far to long, we have left the poor at the kiddie table while the "adults" have sought to develop the best ways to help "those people."
Let me tell you about "those people." I think of an older woman named Sheila who serves her community as a form of public transportation. Her sacred dignity shines powerfully as she maneuvers her mini-van to provide people rides, offer her van as a moving truck, and carries people to get food from Soul Food Cafe. Imagine the perspective she can offer our city on public transportation.
Let me tell you about Brian King. Brian two years ago had the idea to develop a garden for his community. He came to my office, offered the idea, and then proceeded to mobilize some people at his sister's church. Today Brian King's idea has led to community gardens being in three low income communities. Sadly, Brian passed away two months ago due to a heart attack but his contributions have been immeasurable as many families have benefited from available food sources.
I point to these two beautiful people because even though they may be economically poor, the same human dignity that resides in us exist in them as well. They possess ideas and motivation. They possess creativity and compassion. They are a small sampling of the poor and they exist in our city.
In conclusion, we have a variety of perspectives around the Grand Canyon of poverty. These perspectives offer us the opportunity to address poverty in such powerful ways in Conway and Central Arkansas we can become a great beacon to light the way for other cities in Arkansas.
(Note: Keynote address given at University of Central Arkansas on October 6, 2015)