Take Back Vacant Land

Does ancient Isaiah speak to Ferguson?

There’s been a lot of commentary about the conflict in Ferguson that is not just in Ferguson—maybe so much noise that it’s easier to tune it out. Suffice it to say that the recent verdict has put salt in a giant wound that was not healing very well in the first place. 

I knew it again on Monday at City Hall when one of my partners in the Coalition to Take Back Vacant Land wept as she testified to City Council.  (We were there to advocate for equitable distribution in the Land Bank planning process).  As she described the trash dump that has developed right next to the home she’s owned for 30 years, she wept softly about the dangers her grandchildren face there. She feels powerless. She is looking for help to reverse the blight in her neighborhood without displacing people like herself who want to stay and contribute to the common good.

I looked around at our audience—mostly white men in nice suits—and then back at our multi-racial coalition in matching T-shirts, some in wheelchairs and with other disabilities.  I wondered how silly we looked and sounded to the white-men-in-expensive-suits crowd who came to barter with their multi-million dollar property investments.  They had ownership of the system and here we were weeping for children, asking for affordable housing and advocating for space to farm—of all the podunk things—talking about the peace-making value of bringing neighbors together around urban land restoration and sharing healthy food.  The monetary value of a parcel of land that is farmed vs. developed into luxury condos is laughable.  I felt the rule of the almighty dollar bearing down on me, and the racist systems it perpetuates.  I was glad that Jesus—the refugee baby, the weeping friend, the suffering servant—was there with all of us.

And I remembered the words of the prophet Isaiah as he described the future with Jesus:

Isaiah.the.prophet“There will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned…They rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest…You have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.  Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, it will be fuel for the fire.  For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.”

I know that Peace!  And I long for it to be demonstrated in the world, where some of our systems are maintained by violence. CNN told me that officer Wilson was not indicted because he was following his training.  I think that is absolutely true.  Why do our police receive military training? Is it necessary to take a kill shot in order to restrain someone from harming themselves or others? Part of the horror of murder is the way that a human suffers after killing another human. Psychologists know this; we have neuroscientific and behavioral evidence of the harm done to the killer, and yet we continue to send soldiers into battle, and to train local police to go there too.  Right now we maintain 130+ active military operations around the world, while my neighbors struggle with basic needs.

I sense the suffering and compassion of our Lord in our suffering, for those on all sides.  We live in the midst of great economic and political power imbalances that affect black people as a group more than others.  But this story is not over.  As people follow in the footsteps of Christ and come together to demonstrate love, there is life in unexpected places.  Allow us to burn our battle-wear, Jesus, and let it be fuel for the fire which is your Peace.  Take our gloom and help us to face oppression with light, and even rejoicing, at the justice You bring. Give us a harvest of mercy and restoration this Advent.

For environmental justice

I’m headed to city hall to support the passing of the Philadelphia Land Bank Bill.  The Coalition to Take Back Vacant Land (a diverse group of community organizations) has been working for a land bank we can trust, one that could open the 44,000 + vacant/abandoned properties in Philadelphia to urban farms, green spaces, and affordable housing.
I’m hopeful for the bill because it’s painful to see the waste of our city’s natural resources, and to see the less-wealthy (and statistically more black and brown-skinned) brothers and sisters among us suffer the most blight.  Many people keep working for restoration in creative ways, including Circle of Hope, and we’ve tasted it’s fruits (literally) by farming urban land and sharing the food and beauty, living communally, rehabbing buildings, planting trees, paying down one another’s debt, valuing biking over driving, starting thrift stores and buying from them, and trying to practice simplicity.  There is much left to do, of course, but it’s a good life.
urban farmsThe problem of environmental injustice—that U.S. greed and consumption is damaging the earth’s habitat and consistently placing the less-wealthy in the least-healthy environments—is systemic.  It is not coincidental that factories and power-plants are placed in regions that less-wealthy people live.  It is not because less-wealthy people enjoy poor health that they suffer more asthma, obesity, infant mortality and lower life spans.  It is not because less-wealthy people don’t like fresh food that corner stores don’t always carry it.  It is not that our people lack the ability and the desire and the resources to steward the land around us.  It is, rather, that we’ve been influenced by classist and racist policy and philosophy for generations.

Environmental injustice also has spiritual roots, as most problems do.  When Circle of Hope met recently with our friend Lisa Sharon Harper, who works in public policy with Sojourners, she encouraged us to identify the lies that perpetuate environmental injustice in our city.   She reminded us that movements of goodness are unlocked when people confront spiritual lies with spiritual truths. 
I recently posted some of the conversation on our Circle of Hope list-serve but it might be worthy of repetition in our pursuit of wholeness.  Below in color are the lies that we identified with Lisa, as well as some spiritual truth and suggestions from me.  I’m grateful that we are already part of the great restoration movement that Jesus is leading, and that the brokenness we experience is not the end of the human story.
-It’s your fault if your living conditions are bad.
-Without a commitment to profit, we won’t survive.
-God gave some humans the right to be masters over others.
-Big business profits trickle down.
-Resources are scarce; we have to compete.
-The American dream: everyone has equal opportunity to clean air, land, water, success.
-We are worth what we own; whoever has more is better.
-Your happiness is determined by where you live.
-Climate change is a hoax; environmental concern is for hippies.
-Offsetting our carbon footprint is enough to cure climate change.
-Affluent people deserve to feel safe.
-Poor people trash neighborhoods and don’t take care of things.
-Poor people don’t like healthy food.
-The only reality is here and now.
-The earth is self-sustaining; it’s ours to use (up).
-We’re entitled to thermal comfort no matter what the cost.
-We’re doing enough.
-We are powerless to make a difference; the problems are too complex; nothing will change. (I think this hopelessness and resignation may be the core spiritual lie at work in Philly/Camden. What do you think?)
Manifestions of the LIES:
-Consumerism; debt.
-Poverty and polluted land, air, and water, disproportionately in less-wealthy communities
-Increased racial tension and judgment
-Natural resources go to the highest bidder
-Factories and power-plants located in underserved communities, consistently throughout the U.S.
-High rates of asthma, obesity, infant mortality, and shorter life span among those less affluent
-False urban/rural divide
-Under-supported farmers, farmers “owned” by big business
-Not enough study and press about the climate change crisis
-Fresh food less available in less-wealthy communities
-Affordable housing not built with environmental components
-Disconnection from nature and the consequences to nature, reliance on technology
-Littering and trash; city sanitation more likely to ignore less-wealthy neighborhoods
-An education system that serves the powerful
-Not enough support for bike transit
Spiritual TRUTH:
-All human beings are created in the image of God.
-The earth is a gift to be nurtured and shared.
-God laid out some guidelines regarding Sabbath rest, economics, and creation-care in the Old Testament that are worth considering through the lens of Jesus. 
Trust in God is at the heart of a generous culture.  Jesus invites and enables us to co-create with Him now when he says “The kingdom of God is at hand.”
What we can do:
-Invite everyone to your cell meeting and to your public meetings.  A community that is centered on Jesus and filled with the Holy Spirit has more power to restore the earth and its people than anything else I know.
-Care tenderly for the poor among us, as you can.  Note: that includes you too. We all live in some measure of physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual poverty and here in Advent we’re reminded that God keeps coming to us.  Humility helps us receive.  Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall see God.”
-Share your resources as you can.  Contrary to what our advertising culture tells us, we will be radically unlocked by this practice.  
-Find out about a vacant lot near you and let yourself imagine a communal place of peace there.  We hope that our efforts for a Land Bank in Philly will soon make vacant land development more accessible.
-What else?