Trying to maintain

This story happened a while ago. I’ve changed names and other details.

Christopher Rodriguez tells me he’s just trying to maintain. He tends bar on the weekends, he says, but never gets many shifts and isn’t sure how long he’ll even have the job. I suspect he’s asking for advice, so I begin to venture it, but he waves me off. “I ain’t about all that. Just trying to maintain,” he says, a second time.

“I’m on that SSI,” he adds—Social Security Income. He’s trying to ensure that he doesn’t lose welfare benefits by making too much money. He thinks about job training programs sometimes, but the mere thought starts a mental tailspin, and he’s trying to maintain. He’s got a decent rhythm now, days and weeks of good behavior turning into months. How long can he keep this up?

Christopher and I both have sons on the same Little League baseball team. The team is practicing on a warm April night, and Christopher and I are standing in the dugout. We don’t know each other from Adam, and before now we’d never ventured past small talk. I’d been curious about him, though—he stood out from the rest of us suburban dads.

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Christopher is a good five or six inches shorter than I am, but built like a bull. If you saw him walking toward you on the sidewalk, your spine might stiffen. His resting face could be mistaken for a glower, sharpened by a dark, triangular beard. His left arm is covered in what you’d think is a sleeve tattoo until you give it a closer look—it is not planned art, but a congealed history of nights and weekends, plus, as I learned, a stint in prison.

Earlier in the season while trying to break the ice with Christopher and another tattooed dad, I asked them where they got their tattoos. “I’m in the market,” I said. “Looking for some good local talent.” (There has to be a cool way to inquire about local tattoo talent, but I do not know what it is.)

Christopher took me in for a couple beats, then: “Shit, man, no fucking clue,” he said, then added, “I’m not saying I got mine in the joint, but….” He laughed. I didn’t know what to say. We had stared for a moment just past each other’s shoulders.

But on this night, all of a sudden, we’re past the awkward stares and small talk. I had asked one question—”So, how are things going for you?”—and for some reason he’s really, really answering me.

I learn that Christopher is 32 and that he’s on a good run—he has been out of jail for a while, and he’s living clean. Things are balanced in his life at the moment, and while he knows he needs to make more money, get him and his son out of his parents’ house, he cannot not chance pushing too hard: he has to maintain.

Christopher is paying down a restitution—he owes the State of Texas $100 per month as a penalty for a crime he won’t disclose. That $100/month in restitution is his main financial priority, and when it is done a new door will open: “Then I can help coach.” He gestures toward the field where his son is playing.

“You mean you can help coach baseball?”

He’s been talking nonstop for five minutes, but this question brings him up short. Christopher looks down, fights back tears. I sneak a peek at the other parents.

“You can’t coach without a background check,” he says. His son plays football in the fall, and “I don’t know much about baseball, but man … football? I could play.” Christopher bounces on his heels a bit, anticipating. He claps his hands together. Once he can clear a background check, he won’t stand on the sidelines talking to parents like me.

He looks up at the sky for a moment, muttering to himself. His eyes brighten: “Oh shit, that’s right, I’ll be able to coach this next season!” Then his eyes fade: “No, wait. I still owe $1200.” He does the math again. “I guess it’ll be next fall.” He falls silent for a moment. “Twelve more months.” Sigh. “I can do that.”

We start talking about extended family, which Christopher just calls “family.” He doesn’t understand my situation—my wife and I live here with just our kids and no other family anywhere in Texas. The in-laws are in one city, siblings in a couple others. Christopher tells me he can’t relate to that. For Christopher, it’s all family. I say I envy him, and he laughs. He keeps talking about “Rodriguez” like it’s is a disease, or a drug. “You can’t get rid of the Rodriguez … They’ll always be Rodriguez.”

Christopher’s dad beat him with a belt all the time, he tells me. That’s the same dad he lives with now—I sometimes see him in the stands at the baseball games. I ask Christopher if he and his dad are okay now. He looks at me like he doesn’t understand what I’m asking. I put it bluntly: “Well, he beat you with a belt while you were growing up, and now you’re living with him—I mean, how is all that?”

Christopher stares at me for a moment. He changes the subject.

A little while later, Christopher tells me about the time he beat his ex-wife and she called the cops. He tells me this like he’s describing ordering a sandwich—it’s the most matter of fact thing in the world. When the cops came, he got away with a warning: “If you kill your wife, you’ll be going away for a long time,” they told him.

His ex-wife has 4 or 5 more kids from a couple different guys. Christopher says that all of them have been put into foster care system now. He’s not sure what she did to lose them all.

When he and his parents sought custody of Christopher’s boy, Christopher had to appear in court and answer a lot of questions about his life. He said it was hard to talk about himself in front of all those people—it was nothing like talking to me, right now. He’d never been so scared, he says. For the second time, he fights back tears.

All of the above, I get in one 30-minute conversation with Christopher while we watch our sons do defensive drills and shag balls.

The baseball season goes on. Our team is terrible—we eek out a couple wins midway through the season, but the squad is full of first-time players, and mostly we watch the other team score runs. Christopher and I stop small-talking, stop talking at all. He nods at me at practices and games; I nod back. He starts standing further apart, and then, with a few games left in the season, stops showing up. His son gets rides from Christopher’s dad.

I try to track him down. No one I know knows him or anyone he knows.

Politics aside, people are repairing the world

Yesterday I had a conversation with a guy here in San Antonio who houses refugee women and children—about 15 at a time, usually from Central America, on an ongoing basis as they filter through this town after being released from detention. The refugees come virtually every day, and are dropped off at the local Greyhound station or at the airport. This guy has been trying to receive them as well as he’s able for a couple years now, and he has learned a lot about what to do, what not to do, how to work with ICE, how to set these women and children up to leave here with as much internal stability as possible. He’s implementing all sorts of ideas to help them deal with their trauma and the trauma of their fellow refugees.

Other folks are connected to his work, like a nun who sits at the Greyhound bus station most days and receives refugees as they are dropped off, and a pro-bono lawyer who spends as much of her time as she can helping people navigate immigration law. They, in turn, are connected to informal networks and various organizations pouring lots of time and energy and money into caring for these most vulnerable people.

This, too, is happening. People like this are stepping into the problems you’re always hearing about, and they’re doing vital work that never makes it to your screen(s).

You’ll never hear about their work on Fox News or CNN or MSNBC. They don’t have a presence on Twitter or Facebook. But they’re here, on the ground, doing really hard work everyday on behalf of desperate strangers. Why? Simply because the work needs to be done.

They’re not just here, of course. People are taking it upon themselves to address these challenges in El Paso, Arizona, San Diego, and all across the southern border.

We have a drone-level view of this story that has dominated headlines all year, the story of our immigration policy and ICE and family separation and detention centers. Mostly, the stories we hear are the ones that play well in our political theater. But get closer to the ground, and you’ll see that there’s a lot more detail to this story, with more characters in the mix, including people who sit at bus stations and border fences, and receive people, and offer them food and water and shelter and counseling and transportation. Free of charge, with no ulterior motive, just a deep sense of calling to repair something in this broken world.

This, too, is happening. This, too, is part of what’s going on. The tragedies are larger than the helpers. But the helpers are not overcome.

The upside of unused church space

Churches in Denver, Colorado, Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. are turning unused space—empty church buildings, undeveloped parcels, old parking lots—into affordable housing solutions. Recent stories about what’s happening in these cities call this a nationwide trend, and I suspect that’s overstated, but I suggest we keep calling it that in hopes that it becomes true.

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How much land do churches own nationwide? How much of that land is in cities with an affordable housing crisis? Think of all the old, aging church buildings with declining memberships—they’re everywhere, and in some cities they’re becoming bars, climbing gyms, high-end condos. But some congregations are using a better economic imagination.

In downtown Denver, St. John’s Cathedral sold an old parking lot for $1 to a nonprofit that built 50 affordable housing units. That inspired the local Interfaith Alliance to pull 20 churches together to “transform their unused land into housing with a higher purpose.” They looked at county data and found more than 5000 acres of unused land owned by churches around Denver. Statewide, there’s even more—down in El Paso County (home to church-dense Colorado Springs) there are 10,000 acres of development land.

There are lots of ways this could go, and it sounds like the Interfaith Alliance is getting lots of advice and being as creative as possible. Some churches are selling their buildings are market rate and using the cash for housing efforts, some are running their own properties, some are giving the land away.

This work is absolutely vital in one of the hottest housing markets in the country—more and more families are facing fewer and fewer housing options. More than 50% of Denver renters pay more than 30% of their income in rent, and last summer, the average price of sold single-family homes was over $500,000.

The housing affordability problem hits far beyond the hottest markets, however. “Millions of low-income Americans are paying 70 percent or more of their incomes for shelter,” reports Glenn Thrush at the New York Times, and our federal and state responses to these challenges are slow, stubborn, and often inept.

Here in Texas, I am certain there is lots of opportunity for churches to get creative about our own brewing housing crisis. (The Texas Tribune has a new series on the issue.) I saw a recent annual report from the Rio Texas United Methodist Conference, and concerns about the real estate of their empty churches—mostly in the “inner city”—took up a significant portion of the report. Also, last year at Folo Media when we were trying to build a comprehensive list of San Antonio congregations, the county data we pulled showed land holdings that far exceeded the number of churches in the area. It wasn’t clear how that land is being used, but I wonder if congregations around here are having the same conversation that is happening in Denver, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C.

Here’s hoping a trend really is underway, and that congregations want to be trendy.

Writing about Mom

I’ve been thinking about writing a book about my mom for over a decade. She is an extraordinary person who lived a life of struggle with remarkable integrity and even joy. I think her story would do a lot of people a lot of good.

For a long time, I told myself I wasn’t working on that book because she was living with cancer and I did not want to be looking backward at her life as if her life was about to be over. I wanted to keep hoping we’d have her another 20 years.

I don’t have that excuse now. Since she passed in February, I’ve published one article—about how prayer was her life’s work—and yesterday I posted to Medium this short story about anger and the things people say when someone you love dies and a trail run I took on the day of her death.

Both times I’ve written about her, it feels a little like I’m spending time with her. That makes me want to write a lot more . . . and not write any more at all. I love thinking about her, of course, but to think about her is to remember again that she is gone. Choosing to sit with that loss regularly might be more than I can commit to.

But I do enjoy spreading the gospel of her life:

She was good at loving things. Not just people, but delights of all kinds. She’d exclaim over a bite of pie — My law, that is good! She’d thrill to a rush of snowy air barreling through a door — Polly Wolly, that is cold! She’d revel in the small actions of my children or the everyday insights of my wife — I do believe that is the sweetest thing I have ever heard! I called or texted her when any good thing happened, because her delight upgraded my delights. Her joy added to my joy, like a contagion.

I stood at the top of that hill and pretended for a moment that I did not know what I was feeling instead of anger — but I knew. I knew even as it welled up within me and pushed everything else aside: it was joy. I could almost hear Mom sharing it with me.

UnChristian Christianity

Conor Friedersdorf:

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus Christ speaks of the Second Coming, telling his disciples that all humanity will be gathered to distinguish those chosen to reside with him in Heaven from those damned to join the devil in Hell. He says those blessed to spend eternity with God will be told, “Take your inheritance … for I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Whereas the condemned will be told, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil… For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” When they retort, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” Jesus said, they will be told that whatever they failed to do for the least of their fellow humans, “you did not do for me.”

Intervening millennia have offered no shortage of opportunities to care for strangers who are hungry, thirsty, sick, or otherwise destitute, rather than turning them away. Christian charities are often at the forefront of such efforts. The UN Refugee Agency now estimates 68.5 million displaced people worldwide, including 25.4 million refugees—roughly half children—and 3.1 million asylum seekers.

If Trump’s coalition believes the U.S. cannot possibly absorb all of them—that even God would not want so many people welcomed into the life raft that it sank, to invoke an analogy oft-used by immigration restrictions—it seems equally clear that the levels of refugee absorption the U.S. sustained for decades were eminently sustainable. Yet Trump and his supporters—a coalition its churchgoers can make or break—have the distinction of planning to help tens of thousands fewer strangers in urgent need than any governing coalition in modern history.

 

The people who know what’s going on

Yesterday I met a Hispanic pastor in  San Antonio whose church features a Spanish-language service as one of its three Sunday morning services. Those are increasingly common nationwide, but this guy’s church had an interesting wrinkle—one that is a tell-tale sign of what’s happening with immigration along the southern United States border.

This pastor speaks fluent Spanish, and his parents are from Mexico, but he was raised in Texas. A few years ago, he realized he was “no longer fluent enough” to reach his neighborhood’s current wave of native Spanish speakers—recent immigrants, many undocumented, who are living in extremely vulnerable conditions.

By “fluent enough,” he didn’t mean language, but culture. “My skin is brown,” he said, “but my culture is U.S.”

“These people are from Mexico, but also Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua,” he said. And they’re very new to the United States. I asked him how often he meets people on Sunday mornings who have just crossed the border illegally. “All the time,” he said. (Note: that’s why I’m not including names or locations in this post.) His Spanish-language service expands and contracts based on what’s happening in the news. “That service shrinks when a[n ICE] crackdown is happening,” he said. “And I understand—people can’t leave their homes.”

He realized his skin color, his lifelong Spanish fluency, and his deep Mexican heritage wasn’t enough to relate to the immigrants of today. So he recruited a young person from Mexico to come help him and his wife lead this portion of their church community.

Think about that—the care and concern and principled leadership involved in that decision. This church is not large, and its neighborhood is high-poverty, with a median income around $33,000—well below the national average. It’s a stretch and a risk for this church to hire another pastor, especially one whose job is to focus on the most vulnerable and transitional people in the congregation. But that’s what this guy did.

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A San Antonio church. (Not the one mentioned in this post.)

Which leads me back to a thought I have a lot these days:

One of best ways we could serve America’s most vulnerable people is to ask pastors and priests serving low-wealth neighborhoods to make a list of what they need, and just give it all to them. Yeah, I know that’s been tried, sort of, and it’s a non-starter politically.

But it pains me, because I talk to a lot of ministers in low-wealth neighborhoods, and what I find is that they really know what’s going on—they have direct, up-to-the-minute knowledge of the lives and needs of people in a few square miles of city. Unlike elected officials and even many activists, ministers talk to the people in these neighborhoods everyday, and they talk to a cross-section: parents, young children, teenagers, the elderly, small business owners, the out-of-work, ex-cons, the disabled, people struggling with mental health issues, and on and on.

And what needs would these ministers identify? Well, they might surprise you—though I find that their thinking often echoes what I read from the best academic researchers and journalists on these issues.

The pastor I mentioned above mentioned two big needs: a soccer field for local youth, and business training for locals who are running fragile-but-promising ventures like lawn care and BBQ catering. Both needs, if fulfilled, would touch upon a laundry list of issues that the government and big nonprofits and foundations struggle to address: for the soccer field—physical health, idle time, confidence-building, teamwork thinking, beautifying a dangerous empty lot, and more; for the business training—economic development, leadership training, job creation, and more. (Side note: if this nation ever gets serious about job development in low-wealth areas, we’ll apply our startup know-how to the mom-and-pop businesses that already exist.)

These needs are no big deal in some parts of town. Fields of play are easy to come by in middle- and higher-class areas. Business coaching happens almost naturally in higher-wealth areas; it’s in the water. But in this pastor’s neighborhood? The infrastructure is not there. These needs are hard to meet.

A few years ago, he was able to get a playground built in his under-served neighborhood. It took some relational capital and some luck. A wealthy white business owner heard about the need, and offered to help. They had a meeting with few of the wealthy man’s friends, and by the end of the meeting, the men had pledged the $60,000 needed to build the playground. A few months later, they had a playground building party complete with 200 volunteers and free food and a band.

Cool story. But boy, that’s a hard model to scale across the many structural needs in a community like this one. Especially when no one thinks to ask deeply informed leaders like this pastor what a community needs.

This pastor recently turned down a big job offer in another city, one that would have given him and his wife some financial stability. He and his wife agreed that they simply could not leave. There is still too much work to do in this community. And if they don’t do it, who will?

A city in 12.5 miles

Anyone wanting to get a taste of the economic and social changes affecting people in San Antonio would do well to take a drive down Zarzamora Street. It runs only 12.5 miles, but that short distance covers a lot of ground.

Here it is: zarzamora map

In that trip, you can see what’s churning in our city. Gentrification? Check. Aging public housing? Check. Boarded up businesses? Check. Struggling traditional schools? Check. Newer charter schools? Check. Historic churches? Check. Distressed houses? Check. Middle-income neighborhoods? Check. Big new developments? Check. Untouched fields? Check. Plus plentiful taquerias, old-school factories, local artist murals, and more.

Start in the Deco District. Open the Zillow app and click around the listings, and you’ll catch the tell-tale language of gentrification: “up and coming neighborhood!”—“popular area”—“recently transformed”—“restored to original glory”—“income-producing property.” Per square foot, this is some of the priciest real estate in San Antonio. Here’s a listing for $160/square foot; here’s one for $161.

Zarzamora runs that way for about 7 blocks, or half a mile. Then you cross Woodlawn, and things suddenly shift. Woodlawn Lake is within walking distance, but now we’re in not-yet-transformed territory. The real estate listing lingo changes: “great opportunity” — “great potential.” The prices per square foot nosedive: This one is $108. This one is $71.

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A friend of mine called this paint color “the color of gentrification.”

(Every now and then, you’ll find a pioneering property, if “pioneering” is the right word, and it’s not. What I mean is that you’ll find someone who has ventured into an area they expect to gentrify, but they’ve ventured alone. “WOW COME SEE THIS HOME,” says this listing, which is asking $120,000 for 864 square feet. That’s $139/square foot on a block where most of the homes are severely distressed.)

 

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A house directly across the street from the listing above.

Retail changes in this area, too, as does the density of it—more aging businesses, and also more boarded-up businesses.

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Zarzamora Street Gym, for sale.

Eventually, you cross Alazan Creek, and then Apache Creek. You’re near big public housing complexes like the Cassiano Homes, and venerable nonprofits like Good Samaritan Community Services.

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One of two murals on the handball courts at Escobar Park.

Keep going south, and at some point you’ll realize you’re in what we call the Southside. Development is less dense here, and it’s more visibly middle class. You’ll see a Starbucks. You’ll see both a Home Depot and a Lowe’s. You’ll see the South Park Mall. Palo Alto College announces itself in the distance.

 

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The view of downtown from Zarzamora St. and Gillette Blvd.

Passing under I-410 brings another dramatic change. Open fields abound, but there is an anchor institution: the Texas A&M University-San Antonio. It’s a commuter campus, and I imagine most students come via 410, but I recommend the Zarzamora route—especially to the sociology students. It’s easy to imagine the fields around this campus filling in as the years go by. For Sale signs are positioned at the edges of some fields as Zarzamora runs southward until it abuts Route 16.

Take a drive of Zarzamora. It’s all here—the city’s historic heart, its churning present, and its future in flux.

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The south-most point of Zarzamora Street. It’s a long way from Deco Pizza.