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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Day with Dad

For the last couple of weeks, I have been preoccupied with grading papers or with things that suddenly become crucial to do rather than grading papers.  I've been retreating to the back room, to a coffee shop, or wherever I can to try to keep my focus.  That means that the people I live with have also tried to stay out of my way and not expect much of me.

Going back a few more weeks, I have also been trying to help Dad get set up better with his gardening.  First, I found a utility sink on Craigslist to put on the back patio.  With a couple of fittings, I rigged a damaged water hose to run from an outdoor spigot to the sink.  The drain, for now, can drain into a bucket or into one of the dozens of potted plants he has in the back of the house.  That was a big success:  good quality sink, low Craigslist price.

My next project was to find some kind of cart to set up as a potting table and workspace next to the sink.  One place I looked is an auction site for government surplus sales, Public Surplus.  This site has lots of school equipment for sale, as well as police departments, county governments, etc., and you can sort by state.  I found a big printer table not far away in Georgetown.  It is the kind you used to see in Human Resources offices, out in the hallway, running constantly, printing checks with all kinds of attached documentation on fancy paper with perforations.  Those printers were noisy, so the tables for them often had a plastic cover to mute the noise while letting a person see the machine at work.  I thought this was a great idea for a mini-greenhouse work table, with wheels to boot.  But I did not win the auction.

I tried Craigslist again, and found a heavy-duty steel cart, tall enough to do potting work standing, and with big wheels.  The guy selling it said it was cluttering his garage and he wasn't using it any more.  A bit of negotiation, and I had a deal.  That makes two successful back porch improvements for Dad's gardening work.  And I have not spent even close to $100 for both items.

In all my heady success, I decided to bid on a couple of rolling shelf units, or more accurately classroom media carts that were surplus at a small school district "not too far" from where we live.  Remember that I have been living in NC for 24 years, so my memory of the map of Texas and distances is a bit rusty.  I did not expect to win the auctions because my bids were pretty low.

But lo, and behold, when the auctions closed I had won both items.  A couple of half-hearted bids had challenged my offer, but the price was way lower than I could have expected to pay.  I scheduled a day to go pick them up, and I did a little measuring of the doors to Dad's Chrysler minivan.  All looked fine to me.  Famous last words . . .

I reached a good point in my grading, came out of hiding, and Dad and I agreed to go together and retrieve the shelving carts, which I plan to use in the garage to make compact storage of boxes more easy to manage with these rolling units.  We checked the map, and to my surprise the location was 2.5 hours away.  Now that is small potatoes in Texas, but it is a bigger part of the day than I had anticipated.  To make double duty, we planned to visit Dad's oldest living sister, Joyce Harbour, in Hico, about thirty miles from the school of our destination in Huckabay.

The route was nice.  Before long we had passed out of the dried up region and into green meadows where there has been some consistent rain during the past month of storms.  The times, they are a-changing, and we passed from cattle ranches into goat ranches and eventually buffalo ranches on the road to Hico.  I don't remember many goats in Texas when I lived here before, and I don't remember ever seeing a buffalo ranch south of Wyoming or Montana.

Dad and I talked about all sorts of things on the trip.  I had brought some work to do, but the conversation was good and the scenery was interesting.  When we finally got to Hico, we took note of a little cafe called the Koffee Kup, which has received some recognition from travel magazines for its food and its pies.  I knew where I wanted to be in a couple of hours.

We headed on up to Huckabay, and I think you may know where this story is going.  It is a small school district with 192 students from K-12.  One of the business administrators met me, and she went to get the bus driver to show us where the carts are.  Immediately, he began to express reservations about where we planned to put the carts for transport.  I assured them I had measured the doors of the minivan and all should fit.  They called out the principal of the school to help me load things up.  These were generous, hospitable people.

What I had not taken into consideration was the depth of the carts.  While I had accurately found that the length of the cart would fit through the side door (45"), I had not taken into account that the door would not open wide enough to accommodate the 28.5" depth of the cart.  Nor would the cart fit through the back gate on its side.

I reckon some small-town folk got a few laughs about the city folk who drove all the way from Salado to pick something up without planning how to fit it in their vehicle.  I was chagrined and a little embarrassed.  The business manager tried to comfort me by pointing out that even if I had gotten one cart through the door, I would have had to make a second trip to get the second one because they were too thick to get both in the van.  Yes, Mike, there are three dimensions in space, even if you are looking at a two-dimensional picture.

One thing I have learned from Dad, and over the years have gotten a little better at doing, is rolling with the punches and not letting things upset me too bad.  This was one of those days that I was able to roll.  We thanked the people, scheduled a later visit with a borrowed truck, and headed back to Hico.  Dad picked up some chocolate candy for Joyce, and we went to see her at the nursing home.  I was happy that she recognized me before we even said anything.  We talked about this and that, caught up
on the relatives, gave our hugs, and prayed together.

Then it was off to the Koffee Kup for CFS (that's Texas shorthand for Chicken Fried Steak), onion rings, and pie.  Filled to satisfaction, we retraced our route back to Salado, having visited Aunt Joyce, scouted the two big shelving carts I bought for a total of $16 (and as Everly will never let me forget, spent way, way, way more on gasoline), eaten pie (a notable achievement in itself), and covered thoroughly the full range of the world's and the family's topics.  If there were any problems, we solved them several times over.  Even with the silliness of poor planning, that was a good day with Dad.

Witness at Bank of America Shareholders Meeting

On May 11, 2011, North Carolina United Power (NCUP) gathered with some allies to challenge Bank of America to clean up its act concerning mortgage modifications and foreclosures.  We brought banners and posters, including a banner displaying the text of Micah 2:1-2.
Associated Press photo
Alas for those who devise wickedness
  and evil deeds on their beds!
When the morning dawns, they perform it,
  because it is in their power.
They covet fields, and seize them;
  houses, and take them away;
they oppress householder and house,
  people and their inheritance.
Rev. Clyde Ellis came from Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement (VOICE) came to speak about the disaster of foreclosures in Prince William County, VA.   Peter Skillern of Community Reinvestment Association-NC (CRA-NC) and Josh Zinner of Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project (NEDAP) in New York City addressed the slow pace of improvement made by Bank of America in dealing with the enormous number of troubled mortgages they service.

Iraq Veteran Blackmon of the Harry Veterans Community Outreach Service in Winston-Salem addressed B of A's work with military families.  Rev. Spencer Bradford of Durham Mennonite Church spoke about bankers and homeowners sharing the same neighborhood, in the spirit of rejecting the utilitarian vision condemned by the Prophet Micah.  Rev. Dr. Greg Moss of HELP, Rev. Dr. Carlton Eversley of CHANGE, and many more from Durham CAN, Davidson County HOPE, Orange County Justice United, and the NC Latino Coalition, gave comments or stood to represent the continued efforts to bring change and justice to the foreclosure crisis.

The big news of the day came from information shared with us by the County Clerk of Court of Guilford County.  In our effort to slow down the railroading of foreclosures perpetrated through "robosigning" and other fraudulent practices of a hasty and careless banking industry, we have been meeting with County Clerks of Court in NC to promote the use of best practices in foreclosure procedings, especially in the determination of who holds the original promissory note on the mortgage.  We found that in Guilford County alone, the Clerk of Court had identified over 4500 fraudulent or forged documents presented to support foreclosures.  That is one county.  We had specific numbers for each bank, as well as the names of robosigners whom banks had employed.  We are calling for a county by county audit of foreclosure documents in NC to get to the bottom of this illegal practice.
Associate Press photo

The following is the speech I gave to open the witness outside the shareholders meeting.

Good morning.  I am Dr. Mike Broadway of Shaw University Divinity School and Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham.

When theological educators in North and South Carolina issued a statement on this economic crisis, we identified key convictions about justice and the economy from our tradition of faith.  Among those convictions was that all people should share in the gifts of God's creation.  Another was that no society can allow a permanent debtor class to emerge, a kind of debt-sharecropping.  A third, among many more, was that the risks and benefits of the economy should be shared by all participants, not dumping all risks on the weak and paying bonuses to the elite.  It is with these kinds of convictions that we stand here today to address foreclosure fraud and mortgage modifications.

Some people say theologians and preachers should stay out of this business.  That's nothing new.  Long ago in the days of the Prophet Micah, the so-called leaders of the people  did not want to hear what he was sent to say.  The economy was in turmoil and people were suffering mightily.  But the leaders preferred a preacher who would gloss over it all and say, "Live it up!  Go have another drink!  Life is good!"  They wanted happy talk while people were losing their homes and livelihoods through fraud and injustice (Micah 2:6-7, 11; Isa. 1:15).

We don't want to be those kinds of preachers.  We don't want to be churches of the sort that Fannie Lou Hamer came to despise during her civil rights work.  She saw so many churches as hypocrites gathering "for the sake of paying the minister's way to hell and theirs, too."  No, we do not want to join the misleaders of the people.

Both the Prophets Micah and Isaiah challenged the financial and political elites of their day for being misleaders.  To the financial leaders they said, "you mislead and confuse the people," and "the spoils of the poor are in your houses" (Micah 2:1-2, 8-9; Isa. 3:12-14).  Back in those days, and now in our time, the financial elite manipulated the structures of the economy "because it is in their power" (Micah 2:1).  They preyed on the hard-earned livings of the working people.

The prophets said that the "add house to house" and "field to field," leaving "many houses desolate" (Isa. 5:8-9; Micah 2:2, 9).  In ancient Israel they foreclosed on the working class in massive numbers, transferring wealth from the producers to the predators, just as is happening in our day.  They turned from leadership to predation.  The prophets say the obvious:  the poor are losing their homes and livelihoods and widows and orphans are abandoned.

Why can this happen?  It seems patently unjust that some can ruin others simply "because it is in their power."  The prophets go on to say that the foreclosures and mass economic turmoil happen because political leaders "write oppressive statutes" and "turn aside the needy from justice" (Isa. 10:1-2).  Just yesterday, ten Attorneys General of the states met in Atlanta to oppose and try to derail a fair resolution of the mortgage crisis.  Recently, the Comptroller of the Currency suggested that the banks need not bear the weight of setting things right in this foreclosure crisis.  Then who will bear it?  If it is not a shared burden, then average homeowners will bear this burden that is too great for us.  We don't need this kind of misleader deciding our futures.

We think that Bank of America wants to be a leader for the average consumer.  We think that Bank of American can be a leader in finding a resolution for the foreclosure crisis that will be good for all parties.  That is why we are here today.  We are calling for leadership toward a just, streamlined process for mortgage modification, foreclosures as a last resort, and a solution that makes the Bank more profitable while keeping people in their homes.

It may seem that we are just a few average, unimportant people standing here today calling out for justice in the tradition of Micah and Isaiah.  But to quote Marian Wright Edelman, "You just need to be a flea against injustice.  Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation."  And enough fleas can transform the biggest bank, too.

Eat at Joe's

“I know what it’s like not to have.  My highest goal in life is to help people.”--Joe Bushfan

After Shaw University Commencement on Saturday, I finally made my way to a place I have been hearing about even before it opened:  Joe's Diner on Angier Avenue at Driver Street in Durham.  My friend Steve Bumgardner has been telling me about these great hot dogs that Joe Bushfan was selling out of a cart.  Quite a few years ago, Joe Bushfan married one of Durham's finest home-grown citizens, Elaine O'Neal Bushfan, that's Judge Bushfan to you and me.  He settled into Durham and made friends easily.  And he came up with a plan to make his life and work benefit a whole community.  I don't need to tell the whole story, because much of it has already been told here and here and here and here and here and here and here.

I do want to report on my first time to Joe's Diner.  It was mid-afternoon on a Saturday, so the pace was slow after lunch and before dinner.  I studied the menu, introduced myself to Joe, and told him Steve had sent me.  I looked over the diner options:  the feature is his all beef hot dog brand from Massachusetts, Pearl Frankfurters.  A quarter-pound dog is close to the size of a large hot dog you might be familiar with.  A half pound dog is not much longer than usual, but really big.  Then there is the one pound hot dog.  I saw one being cooked:  it looked like a great big red snake.  It is thick and about three times or more longer than your usual grocery store hot dog.  He does have some skinny dogs that look familiar.  I only saw a footlong.

The menu has many different ways to serve the hot dogs, as well as some spicy dogs and sausages.  I went fairly conservative for my first try:  half pounder with yellow mustard, ketchup, cheddar cheese, and chopped onions.  With such a big dog, I had to ask for a few more chopped onions to make it come out even, and they were glad to pile them on.  The flavor of the frankfurter did live up to the reputation.  It was good enough to enjoy it for its own flavor, not merely as an excuse for a big pile of condiments.  I'm going to try something else next time.  The Apollo Dog looks pretty good, if I don't have to buy a whole pound of frankfurter.  For folks from Chicago, New York, or other towns with specialized hot dog styles, you can get what you want.

Besides hot dogs, Joe's has hamburgers, from normal to extra large, fixed up in a variety of interesting ways.  Then there are other sandwiches, including some pastrami that caught my eye (I'd better not tell my friend W. C. Turner, Jr., about the pastrami.  He says it is the only thing that successfully tempts him to give up his dietary discipline.)  And Joe's serves breakfast all day.  I definitely want to go back for that.

One of the specials on the day I went was a pork chop sandwich.  Now if I had not gone in planning to try the hot dog, that is what I would have eaten.  I can't vouch for Joe's pork chops yet, but I will not let a pork chop special pass me by again when I eat at Joe's.  There are some of the usual diner sides like fries, but I passed on all of that to make sure I could get through the big hot dog.  It was not as daunting as I had imagined.

Joe is a hard-working, friendly guy.  The other folks working at Joe's also aim to please, and they kept checking on me to make sure I had what I needed.  Tea and sodas are refillable, so I had my diet soda refilled to wash it all down.  Joe's got a score of 100 on its last health code inspection, and he has the good grade displayed on the front window for all to see.  The place was obviously spotless.  Joe did most of the work to restore the old building and install the fixtures himself.  A few of the more technical jobs were contracted out.  The black granite countertop he installed gave sitting at the counter a touch of class.  It has the look and feel of a place that has been around for a long time.  We all can hope it will be around a whole lot longer.

The place was kind of laid back while I was there.  A few people were eating, and the staff was serving and doing some cleaning up from the lunch rush.  Joe made himself a cheese steak sandwich while I was relaxing with my soda.  We chatted about the work he had done to get this fine establishment operational.  

The whole place livened up for a few minutes when someone brought up boxing.  Joe got animated talking about a recent pre-fight weigh-in.  Everyone had an opinion about who would likely win, where the best place to watch would be, or how these fighter compared to the ones from back in the day.  Customers hung on every word when Joe told about conversations with famous fighters from the past.  I suspect that kind of animated conversation is not unusual when the diner is busy.

I'll be in Durham for about six weeks this summer, teaching summer school and working on getting my house ready to sell.  I'll be checking back in at Joe's Diner to sample the food and fellowship again.  I hope you will do the same.

Monday, May 02, 2011

From the Jubilee File--Hon. Rt. Rev. Dr. Willie James Jennings

I have a file buried several layers down in my Documents file on the laptop.  I have visited it often in the past two years to save or retrieve documents relating to community organizing work on the economy.  I named it when I was working on a theological reflection on the economic crisis with a group of colleagues.  Since so much of the biblical discussion of usury kept taking us back to the Jubilee practices of the Israelite society.  So I called the file "Jubilee."  A big part of my life and creative work for the past two years gets documented in the Jubilee file.

It's been a Jubilee year, and in the past few days I have been reminded to count my Jubilee blessings.  Willie James Jennings, my younger brother, turned 50 last Friday.  I was in Texas, fittingly grading papers, on the birthday of my brother in the professoriate.  I lift an analytical reading report in your honor, my brother, to toast your Jubilee Day.

Willie has worked as hard as anyone has to be my friend.  I take it that some of my professorial instincts and habits--absorption in private study, narrowly focused thinking, lack of awareness of the passing of time, occasional absent-mindedness (to put it lightly), aversion to being told what to do and when, being enamored by my own words--make it a bit harder to be my friend.  I hope I have other qualities that compensate.  But Willie thought it worth his time to keep a friendship going.

Although we met as students, it was after marching for graduation in 1994 that we stoked the fires of friendship.  Willie and I shared Saturday morning coffee for many weeks while our daughters (my youngest and his oldest) hopped and skipped and leaped with joy in the little kiddie's dance class.  We talked through some hard times and some good times.  He put a black man's mirror up for me to look at my white man's life in a racialized world.  I knew that something bigger than I could handle was happening to me.  I had no idea that he was finding in me some hope for the church's deliverance from its demons of malformed desire and imagination. 

I did not know this because as a scholar-friend, Willie kept his cards close to his chest.  I understand this a little better now that I've seen him in action recently on a panel to discuss his book, The Christian Imagination.  Some people in the gathering raised questions which begged for a polemical response.  They either did not understand his arguments from the book, or they just wanted to see if they could get a rise out of him. 

But Willie did not take the bait in his Jubilee year.  He generously referred to the antagonistic comments as "matters of deep importance," or something to that effect.  I was ready to pounce, but Willie gave his winning smile.   It may be that he was simply being political, having learned such skills as a faculty dean for so many years.  But I think it was also a commitment to listen and remain in a friendly conversation with people who are sure that he has gone off on a fool's errand.

This Jubilee year I was blessed to read The Christian Imagination with a class of Shaw students taking Systematic Theology.  As with J. Kameron Carter's Race, in reading Willie's book with my students I continuously found ways that it could challenge my previous theology lectures and supplement the textbooks with which I have become so familiar.  The Christian Imagination opened doors for me and for my students that made theology more alive. 

So often when we take theology to be the gleaned gems of a long [tired] tradition, we find it hard to get a lever on how Christian faith, its leaders, its institutions, and its social productions could become so corrupted and contrary to the ways of the one from whom they take their name.  Books like Willie's give us hope that theology does not have to be merely the crusty oozings from the cracked plaster walls lining the edifice of Euro-American World Domination.  Can there be life within those walls of ageless stone?  Could the academy have a heart of beating flesh?  Or are we destined to have hearts of stone?

So it is that in this Jubilee year, Willie opened the floodgates which had held back a deep lake of theological reflection, fed by mountain streams and woodland springs, flowing through the dark places of middle passage, bottom lands of enforced toil, and the hopeful self-direction of a Second Great Migration.  Along the way, a few droplets from the deeps had come my way, but the halls of Duke and Shaw, only thirty miles apart, are worlds away from one another.  If there were open conversations in Durham, I was out of that loop. 

Moreover, the fast scholarly pace of read, reduce, destroy that makes up hyperacademia is not on the menu at Shaw.  I don't mean to be "hatin' on" Duke, but they really are caught up in the university-military-industrial complex, on a high-speed train toward producing the next world, and the next, and the one after that.  Surely, Willie wisely let only a few droplets out so that when the flood arrived, it would be a season of reckoning.  Folks on the train would have to stop and get off if they were going to have a word to say about it.  He gave us far more in this Jubilee year than we could chew quickly, unless we want to choke on it.

So the back and forth clicking to the Jubilee folder was more than I realized.  In his year of Jubilee, my friend ripped open a place in my heart through which the Holy Spirit may shine to make me a better man than I was, burn away the malformations of desire, and kindle an imagination of another way of being Christian, of being a community that longs to know one another as God's bountiful creation and election.

Happy Jubilee, Willie.  Love that house full of women with all that you have in you.  And save a minute for me so we can plot the revolution.
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