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Snowstorm Post-mortem: Taking Stock of Your Social Capital

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When I was on sabbatical in 2002, I attended a conference at Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas, home to an amazing pastor named Kirbyjon Caldwell. The closing talk was given by a young pastor whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten. He wanted to encourage pastors and church leaders to break the habits that lead to a sense of dependency in their congregations. To make his point, he shared a conversation he had with a member of his congregation who called to complain that she had been in the hospital for a week and no one from the congregation had come to visit her.

“You were in the hospital for a week and no one noticed?” the pastor responded. “I have to wonder, what does that say about your level of investment in our community?” He grinned impishly and continued. “Then I asked her, how many people have you visited in the hospital over the last year? How many people have you called when you heard they were ill? How many notes have you sent to let people know that you were praying for them in their time of need? I’m just saying sister, as ye sow, so shall ye reap!”

That story frequently comes to mind when I think about times when people need community—like this past week. At this time last week, the Washington, D.C. metro area was hunkered down, watching a storm drop “historic” amounts of snow on the area. And while we measured a mere 19 inches in our yard in Columbia, MD, there were areas not far from us that were buried under 30 inches or more.

Now, a week later, the post-game analysis has begun. Most of the conversation I’ve seen on line and in the newspaper has focused on snow removal (which seemed pretty bad, even by the low standards of the area) and the decisions to delay opening school until Monday (gotta say, I saw that coming). But I think there’s an additional question for each of us to consider after an experience like this one: how is my supply of social capital?

Social capital is one of the ways to talk about the goods that people accrue when they are part of a community. While it isn’t a perfect way to talk about the benefits of community, it is at times very helpful. You “pay in” to community by doing things that benefit the people around you. A blizzard gives us lots of opportunities to help each other by aiding a neighbor as they shovel snow, offering to bake cookies with a neighbor’s bored kids or hosting a neighborhood potluck.

So what about asking a group of neighbors to help you push your car out of a snow bank? Well, that builds social capital for everyone, because working together towards a successful outcome makes everyone feel more connected. But you can also drain your own social capital by not being grateful when people help you or by being a jerk as they are helping or by asking for help again the next day for the same problem when by that point you should know better.

Shoveling 30 inches of wet snow is no small task. Many otherwise able-bodied friends of ours needed help clearing their driveways and walks. Some had neighbors who were willing to help them out as a favor. Others had pre-arranged with a neighbor to pay for show shoveling. In both cases, our friends needed to have sufficient social capital to get help. They needed to talk to neighbors and build relationships with them prior to the storm in order to get help afterwards.

A few years back, I heard about a group that was organizing in Howard County to increase our level of “emergency preparedness”. I immediately remembered the crazy instructions that came out of the Department of Homeland Security some years back suggesting we all buy plastic sheeting and duct tape in case of attack by a chemical weapon. I braced myself for suggestions that churches run seminars on how to build bomb shelters in your back yard.

Instead, it turned out that one of the group's main strategies to increase our level of “emergency preparedness” was to help neighbors get to know each other. Who might need help? Who might be able to offer help? Working together to cope with a disaster builds social cohesion, but only if there is some connection between neighbors in the first place.

I saw some really great illustrations of the benefits of community this past week--people shoveling for each other, giving each other rides and hosting impromptu get-togethers.  My neighbors saved us from a garlic shortfall on Sunday evening. The residents of Merryrest Road off of Kilimanjaro here in Oakland Mills were particularly impressive. By Monday afternoon, those folks had plowed out about half their street—by hand.

So, how did it go for you during the storm? Did you need help at any point? Did you have enough social capital “in the bank” so you could draw on it when you needed it? Did you do anything to strengthen the sense of community in your neighborhood? Did anything happen that endangered that sense of community?

Immediate Solutions to Howard County’s Housing Problems


This past Wednesday, I attended a forum on affordable housing in Howard County sponsored by the Association for Community Services. It ended up being a strange event. I left with the feeling that everyone in the room understood something but no one was willing to say it: there are no quick-fixes, no minor adjustments, no improvements in programs or staff that will help people with low incomes find housing in Howard County. The only thing that will help is increasing the supply of affordable housing.

So, is there an immediate, short-term way to increase the amount of affordable housing in the county with the third-highest median income in the United States? Obviously! But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I love going to ACS events. Human service professionals and activists from all over the county attend so the questions are always smart. Even the announcements are interesting. Wednesday’s forum started off well. A panel of seven experts presented summaries of the work being done in our county to provide or maintain housing for four vulnerable groups: the elderly, those who are disabled, those who struggle with mental illness and those who have low or very low incomes. Everyone said the same thing—there is a huge gap between the amount of appropriate, affordable housing that is available and the amount that is needed by Howard County residents.

I have a feeling everyone in the room already knew that.

Then came the weird part. We broke up into four groups, each focused on one of the “housing vulnerable” populations we had discussed. Our instructions: create a list of immediate, workable solutions to the challenges faced by low-income people who are looking for affordable housing in our county. Ready, set, go.

A number of people in the group spoke up. Some complained more about the problems, others attempted to answer the question and suggested solutions. Someone thought it might be good to support landlords who may be willing to rent to low-income tenants if they had more encouragement (turns out that has already started happening through the County’s Coordinated System of Homeless Services). Someone thought it would be good to have early morning and evening hours at the Laurel Multiservice Center (done already).

The longer the conversation went on, the more frustrated I got. There was a comment about how the county should provide bigger incentives to developers who might be enticed to build affordable housing, but comments about housing construction were generally redirected. “Remember: we’re looking for short term solutions!”

I am certainly an amateur in this area, but in my very limited experience, this county has its act together when it comes to the coordination and provision of services to low-income people in need of permanent housing. The Plan to End Homelessness, adopted in 2010, got the gears in motion, and now it is easy to get connected to services through the Coordinated System of Homeless Services. The Laurel Multiservice Center has helped different agencies work together seamlessly. And the people? Every single caseworker we’ve encountered through our work with Help End Homelessness has been knowledgeable, resourceful and compassionate. These things are not the problem.

The problem is that there are way too few units of affordable housing even to house the people who already live here, say nothing of what we would need if we housed all the low-wage workers who are employed here.

In order to increase the supply of affordable housing, we either need (1) more housing that is available for below-market rent or (2) more rent subsidies. If we are looking for the federal or state government to provide these things, we are going to be waiting a long time. If we are hoping private developers will, by their own volition, provide these things, we will be waiting even longer.  

So is it possible that our county government will partner with private developers to fund the creation of new, affordable units? Possible. Will the Howard County Housing Department build more affordable units? Yes, but not without a fight. These are the real, long-term solutions to the problem, but in order for them to happen, we need to build political will that currently does not exist.

Here’s what I think everyone who cares about this issue should do in the short term:

  1. Together with others or individually, subsidize someone’s housing. I know that sounds crazy, but it really isn’t impossible. My congregation banded together with a few others, pooled our resources and bought a condo that we are now renting to a formerly homeless family. We created a non-profit that shelters us individually from liability, and we would be happy to add another house, or another dozen, to our list of properties. You and your friends or congregation or civic group or company could select and support a tenant for the home you buy, or we could do that for you.

Or you could rent out a property you personally own at below-market rates.

Or you (and your friends, your congregation, your civic group, your company) could subsidize someone’s rent for a year or two. Many low-wage workers only need $300 or $400 a month to be able to afford stable housing.

I know, I know. This is not a systemic solution to a systemic problem. But it is an immediate solution to the sense of despair that comes when we do nothing at all to solve a problem that is obvious to everyone. And it results in more people having personal involvement with the problem that leads into short term action #2…

  1. Build political will. ACS is made up of service providers and administrators, not lobbyists or politicians. But if we are going to ever more forward on this issue, the people who understand the problem are going to have to speak up at meetings and hearings, write letters to the paper, talk to their friends and neighbors personally advocating for more affordable housing. And some of those people are going to have to run for political office so that they can vote to appropriate money and make policy that will lead to the long-term solutions this county deserves.

Put Yourself in the Way of Beauty


This past Monday, a group of us from the Kittamaqundi Community along with some friends gathered to take another small step on our journey towards “Cultural Proficiency”. It wasn’t really a celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday per se, but it seemed like a good way to honor his life and his legacy. Our leader was the amazing Jen Mansir, a member of our community who has been trained to lead cultural proficiency training through Howard County Public School system.

Jen led us in a thought-provoking exercise around assumptions and stereotyping. Then we shifted gears and talked for a bit about appreciating beauty.

Our conversation was prompted by a video from 2007 that showed the famous violinist Joshua Bell (dressed in a sweatshirt and a baseball hat) playing the first movement of the Bach violin concerto in a Washington D.C. metro station. In the video, everyone rushes past without taking a moment to listen and appreciate the beauty of the music. Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten later wrote about this “social experiment” in a piece entitled “Pearls Before Breakfast”. He asked, “In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

The video was a good lead-in to a conversation about how our assumptions keep us from perceiving things truth, goodness and beauty. When we perceive someone to be less valuable for whatever reason (their race, their weight, their gender, their accent, their appearance), we will likely miss or dismiss the contributions they might make.

But as our discussion went on, I started to think. Part of the reason why people appreciate Joshua Bell’s music when they hear him perform with a symphony is that they just paid a lot of money for their ticket. They are in a beautiful hall, they hired a babysitter, they got dressed up—all of those things increase the chance they they’ll love what they hear. I’ve seen articles that prove the same thing can happen with wine—people enjoy expensive wine more, but only if they know it is expensive before they drink it.

I wonder. Can we use our tendency to see only what we expect to see as an asset in our attempt to build a world where people can live in peace with each other?

Case in point: I occasionally read my horoscope in the morning newspaper. I don’t actually believe that the position of the stars determines anything at all about my day, but it can be amusing to read, for example, that I will meet someone important to my future that day. A horoscope like that can lead me to go through the day a bit more interested in the random people with whom I cross paths.

I know people who do this as part of a prayer practice. They will say to God, “I really need some encouragement today and I would appreciate it if you would send me one of your angels to deliver a word from you.” When someone says a prayer like that, it changes the way they face their day. Each person they meet might be God’s angel that day. Each conversation they have might contain a word of encouragement from God. When you go into a day like that, the world becomes a much friendlier place.

Or consider the prison chaplain I once met who prayed each morning as he started work, “Lord I know you told your disciples that you are there when they visit someone in prison. Help me to meet you today in the prisoners I will be serving.” A prayer like that can transform your experience of a prison.

It is extremely important for us to come to recognize our biases and to correct them by learning to appreciate the contributions of people who we might have previously dismissed or disregarded. But I also wonder if we can mitigate the affect of our negative biases by creating a practice that increases the chance we’ll perceive the gifts we each have to offer.

Cheryl Stayed has a wonderful quote in her book, “Wild” which is repeated in the movie based on her book. She relays a piece of advice her mother gave her as she was growing up. “There’s a sunrise and a sunset every day. You can choose to be there for it. Put yourself in the way of beauty.”

The Speech by MLK That We Should All Read


In my sermon at the Kittamaqundi Community yesterday morning, I started off talking about the wedding at Cana when Jesus miraculously transforms water into wine and ended up discussing the Syrian refugee crisis and random shootings in our country.  In the middle, I spent a bunch of time talking about the speech Martin Luther King gave at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4th, 1967. In retrospect, I might have taken on a bit too much.  For that, I'll blame King, who demonstrated in that speech his unwillingness to stick with a single topic.  (If you'd like to hear a recording or read the text of the sermon, it will be posted on our church's webpage soon.)

The speech was entitled, "Beyond Vietnam:  A Time to Break the Silence".  I read and listened to the speech last week as I was writing my sermon and I still can't stop thinking about it.  Tavis Smiley produced a two-part special about the Riverside speech for PBS which aired in 2014.  The series was called "MLK:  A Call to Conscience" (watch it here and here).  Smiley makes the argument that this is King's most significant speech, the one we should be studying and discussing and reciting in school assemblies.  

I'm inclined to agree, not because it is King's most rhetorically brilliant or captivating speech--it isn't.  King didn't even write the speech by himself (Vincent Harding wrote the first draft) and he uncharacteristically stuck with the text, word for word, as he spoke.  But in the speech, King makes it clear that you cannot be a passionate advocate for racial justice at home without caring about justice and equality for people in every country.  You cannot advocate non-violence in our country without challenging our promotion of violent solutions to international conflicts.  Our moral commitments have a way of spilling over their containers.

Read this speech and you'll find yourself considering problems that are pushing at your conscience (to use one of King's favorite words).  Where are you feeling called to speak or act?  What can you no longer stand to be silent about?  

Those are the questions that brought me to gun violence and refugees, issues that seem enormous and intractable.  King's words challenge me to connect these issues to my faith, the value I place on peace and the confidence I have in the power of love.

As you remember King today, consider these words which came toward the end of King's speech at Riverside Church, delivered exactly one year to the day before his assassination:

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing -- embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate -- ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: "Let us love one another, for love is God. And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love." "If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us." Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.

We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. And history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says:

Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word (unquote).


Another Gift of Community: Learning How to Grow Old Gracefully


I spent this past Sunday afternoon with a group of 15 other people, all over 70, talking about going blind, losing our ability to walk and losing our memory.  It was a surprisingly hopeful conversation.  I left with this note-to-self:  keep talking with other people about aging.

The gathering was the second of four classes that Ann Ivester and Jean Link, two amazing members of the Kittamaqundi Community, are leading this month.  The class was inspired by Atul Gawande's brilliant book, "Being Mortal", but it is much more than a book study.  Jean and Ann are masters at asking uncomfortable questions and giving people the space and support they need to explore them together.  For example, they began by asking the class, "What are your fears around the diminishments that come with age?  What personal diminishment do you fear the most?" Everyone took a few minutes to write down their thoughts and then we broke into groups of three and shared.  We might have squirmed a bit, but we all did it.

As I was walking into the class, someone commented to me, "Not a lot of people in your age group have been coming to this class."  Truth is, aging and death just aren't topics that I think or talk about with my 40-something friends.  When I considered Jean and Ann's first question, I drew a blank.  I don't much like the thought of losing my ability to communicate or losing my memory, but I spend very little time considering the possibility.  But as I thought, I remembered Edith Campbell, a wonderful women from my first congregation in Somerville, MA.

When I first met Edith, she had recently retired from her work as an interior designer.  Every week, she traveled to the Cape to visit an elderly aunt who was living in a nursing home there.  Edith told me her aunt had macular degeneration and had lost her vision.  "It's so sad," she said, "she used to do such beautiful needlework.  Now she can't do a thing.  If that ever happened to me, I'd want someone to shoot me."  Edith tended to to be blunt.

I knew Edith for almost nine years.  During that time, her aunt died and Edith herself moved to Assisted Living.  She decided to move when she realized that she was losing her eyesight to macular degeneration.  And you know what?  She didn't want anyone to shoot her.  She was just fine.

I learned an important lesson from Edith, one that I still think of frequently.  When we are healthy and active, it is very hard for us to imagine being happy if we can't see or hear or talk or move.  We are sure that living in that way would be torture.  But if we talk to a disabled person about their experience of life, we very often come to a different conclusion about what makes life worth living.  That's the reason why it is extremely helpful to know (and love!) people who are older than you or sicker than you or less able than you for some other reason.  By valuing them, we expand our understanding of what makes life worth living.

Edith never said this, but I have no doubt that visiting her blind aunt for all those years made her more able to enduring her own growing blindness.  She knew someone, after all, who had figured out a way to cope with this problem.  I am sure that made her expect that she would be able to do the same.

When I told my small group a bit about Edith and her impact on me, Jean Link responded, "You're already jumping into the topic for our next class!"  Our assignment for the next class is to write a story about someone you know who is "aging gracefully"--not an "outlier" who is hiking Mount Everest as 80, but someone who has had some setbacks but who has handled them in a way that has impressed you.  

I have plenty of stories I could write about.  One benefit of serving as a pastor for the past 20 years has been the chance to build relationships with a number of older people and to walk beside them as the deal with "diminishments" and even face their own deaths.  I know so many people who have enjoyed life and found meaning and purpose up until the very end.  I also know some people who serve as "cautionary tales", models of what I don't want to be like, now or later.

So, I'm adding another item to my ever-growing list of the gifts of community.  Our relationships with other people help us value the life I may have when I can no longer see or walk or remember.

Who--or what--is to blame for political discord?


Last night's State of the Union address started off predictably. President Obama talked about the achievements of his administration and offered a few comments about things he would like to accomplish during his last year in office.  He told people they should calm down and not worry so much about the economy or the threat of terrorism.  I was reading Facebook and Twitter as he spoke, so I was only half listening.  

But then he said something I've never heard a president say in a State of the Union speech before.  He said that he has some regrets about his presidency.  He has not been able to bring a greater sense of unity among the political leaders of the country.  Over the past seven years, the animosity between parties has gotten worse, not better.  Last night, Obama didn't just blame his political opponents for these divisions.  He took some of the blame himself:  "There's no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide."  He went on to talk about the importance of interpersonal trust, saying that democracy requires it.

I certainly believe humility is important.  And I think it is always a good idea to acknowledge that all parties contribute to a conflict rather than portraying oneself as an innocent victim.  But I don't know what to make of Obama's suggestion that our political problems are the result of the moral failings of the people involved.  Is that really true?

Several Washington Post writers seem to think so.  The inside headline of the Washington Post's analysis of the speech read, "A concerned president assesses the nation's character."  Pushing the point, Dana Milbank in the Post this morning to call the speech "a sermon to the nation" and concluded, "The president was late to find his moral voice, but it was important that he spoke."

But the WaPo editorial board had a different take on it:

Mr. Obama acknowledged that partisanship has worsened during his presidency and accepted a share of blame — but said correctly that goodwill and leadership alone cannot repair the situation. It will take systemic reform, he said, to change the tone and substance of American governance.

“We’ve got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around,” he declared; gerrymandering makes Congress less responsive to the will of the majority of Americans. Mr. Obama insisted that Congress should find ways to restrict the untoward influence of money in politics. And he said it should be easier for Americans to vote.

I lean more to this kind of analysis.  In my experience, people understand themselves as striving for high ideals and acting out of good motives.  Suggesting that people "should" be better does very little, in my experience, because most of us are already the heroes of our own story.  People change their behavior not because they somehow improve their character, but because they discover that their behavior is no longer getting them the rewards they are seeking. 

Obama hinted around the edges of this last night.  He criticized those who would blame our nation's problems on people of another race or religion saying, "This isn't a matter of political correctness.  It's a matter of understanding just what it is that makes us strong."  In other words, this kind of rhetoric isn't just morally wrong--it is a tactical error.

It may seem odd to hear a minister say this, but I think we should stop talking so much about improving our character and instead focus on the best tactics to confront the problems that are most pressing to our country.  My point of reference here (and in many other settings) is Robert Wright's work on game theory.  (If you're not up for his books "Non-Zero" or "The Evolution of God" at the moment check out his TED talk).  Not only does Wright reinforce my belief in the power of context in shaping our morality, but he helpfully delineates between zero-sum problems (if I win, you necessarily lose) and non-zero-sum problems (either we both win or we both lose).  

Elections are zero-sum problems--only one person can win.  But most pressing problems that our politicians have to address once they are elected are non-zero-sum.  Either we all beat global warming or none of us do.  Terrorism, global pandemics, economic growth are all issues that require global cooperation. 

So how do you elect people who are going to be able to work together with people they don't agree with to find solutions?  Obama got it exactly right:  redistricting reform, campaign finance reform and voting rights.  When politicians have to bring together diverse groups and interests in order to get elected, they become the people with the kind of character our country needs.


Howard County Needs More Mentors


I had some big goals in 2015.  I knew in advance that some would be a challenge to accomplish.  Others seemed simple at the outset, but I soon realized they were going to be very challenging.  That was the case with lifeguard certification (a story for another day) and it certainly was the case with becoming a Big Sister for the Big Brother/Big Sister program.  The process took almost three months and including a two-hour interview, a lengthy application, multiple references, a criminal background check, a lot of waiting and a little bit of pleading.  I'm not sure it would be any easier to get a top-level security clearance.

On December 18th, 2015, my "match" with my Little Sister Desirae became official.  We had a little ceremony with the Big Brother/Big Sister match maker which ended up being surprisingly touching considering that Desirae and I have known each other for over two years.  We were originally connected through A-OK Mentoring-Tutoring, Inc. when Desirae was in fourth grade.  A-OK is a great organization which partners with the Howard County Public School System to match mentors with students.  It is a great organization--well-run and well-supported by the elementary schools in our county.  

But A-OK has its limits.  For one thing, it is entirely school-based.  I saw Desirae during her lunch period once a week but I didn't see her over the summer or in the neighborhood.  I didn't know her family and they didn't know me until I ran into them at a playground by accident one day.  The other big limitation is that A-OK isn't well-supported by the middle schools in our county.  Kids are less interested in skipping their lunch time with their friends as they get older and the schools aren't willing to pull kids out of their regular classes to meet with their mentors.

So, once Desirae started sixth grade this year, her mom and I started working on enrolling in the Big Brother/Big Sister program.  We soon discovered that Big Brother/Big Sister doesn't actually exist in Howard County.  We had to go through the Baltimore area program (which is a very impressive, well-run, well-staffed organization).  The only reason they eventually agreed to enroll us is that we were already matched with each other.  

Howard County is a very wealthy place with lots of resources for kids in and out of the schools.  So it has come as a surprise to me to realize how few mentoring programs are in the county.  In addition to A-OK, I know that there are Alpha Achievers and Delta Scholars in the high schools, but these programs are primarily for African-American kids.  I saw this summer that there is now a mentoring program in the schools for homeless kids.  And I know that St. John Baptist Church has a mentoring program for kids in grades 6-12 who come from single-parent households.  

These are great programs, but they aren't enough. Study after study has shown that mentoring has a real and lasting impact on kids--and on mentors.  We can do better, Howard County!  Recently a group called "Be You, Inc." has caught my attention with the "Girls Who Code" program.  Their website includes a call for mentors--maybe they can start to fill in some of the gaps?

My Mission for 2016: Defeat Despair


For me, the beginning of a new year prompts a renewed commitment to do the things I want to do but have trouble sustaining.  I can't resist the possibility of a perfect record, so every year I start off with determination to run every morning, write every day and floss every evening.  Of course this strategy for self-improvement has its drawbacks.  A few years ago, I resolved as usual to floss every night that year.  When I realized I had forgotten to floss on the evening of January 1st, I found myself thinking, "Oh well, I'll try again next year."

Blogging is on my list of things I enjoy doing but find hard to sustain.  A blog has its own momentum--the more you write, the more you can think of things to write about.  But it is an optional activity for me, and when my week is crowded with thing I must do, blogging becomes a low priority.  And the less I write, the harder it is to think of things to write about.

But no matter.  So far, I've written on this blog every week this year!

This past year, 2015, was a significant year in my life personally.  It wasn't as outwardly eventful as 2014 when my oldest children, Paul and Isaac, graduated from high school and left home to attend college and I had a three-month sabbatical from my work at the Kittamaqundi Community.  But 2015 was one of the most hopeful years of my life.  Some nagging problems at the church shifted and found resolution.  I took on some personal challenges (getting re-certified as a lifeguard, getting certified as a mediator and as a facilitator of the Alternatives to Violence Project and as a Big Sister) and succeeded in accomplishing them.  

Best of all, a group I have been working with for four years bought a condominium, fixed it up and rented it to a family who was homeless.  The lovely article by Andrew Michaels which ran in the Columbia Flier and the Howard County Times on Christmas Eve (and ran in the Baltimore Sun on the Sunday following Christmas) does a nice job summarizing our work, as does the website for Help End Homelessness, HC Inc., the nonprofit we founded to create a structure for ownership of rental property.

As I told Mr. Michaels, this project didn't begin with a sense of abundance or hope for the future.  This project was born from feelings of deep frustration.  Our congregation has hosted Howard County's Cold Weather Shelter since the beginning--we just finished hosting the shelter for the 13th year.  It is a big project for a small congregation like ours to welcome 24 people to live in our building for a week.  But at the end of each week, with few exceptions, every single person in the shelter is still homeless.  All the energy, time, love and resources that we poured into the shelter was just maintaining people in homelessness.  It was frustrating--and it led to a sense that homelessness was a problem that we will never solve, no matter how hard we try.  

But homelessness is not an insolvable problem.  Homelessness has a solution and everyone knows what it is:  housing.  A few years back, our congregation decided that if we were going to be a place that generates hope and not despair, we were going to have to make some effort to solve the problem of homelessness and not just maintain people in homelessness.

So we formed a 501c3 organization, raised $124,000 in cash and bought a two-bedroom condominium.  With the help of Denise Gordon, the housing locator who works with people who have been identified by the Coordinated System of Homeless Services, we interviewed several homeless families, found a fantastic tenant and signed a lease agreement on October 15th.  Our tenant is renting the property from us at 30% of her income.  

I know that renting one house to one family does not end homelessness.  It doesn't even make a significant dent in the number of homeless families in this county.  But our work has made an enormous difference in the life of one mom and her two young children.  And what's more, our work has had a huge impact on our lives because a problem that used to seem impossible to solve now seems completely solvable to us.  It wasn't easy to raise the money to buy a two-bedroom condo, but it wasn't really that hard.  Any congregation could do it.  And if every congregation in Howard County bought a home and rented it to a family struggling with homelessness, there would be no more homeless families in our county.

Hope is contagious.  The shift I've experienced in my attitude towards the problem of homelessness makes me look at other nagging problems with a different perspective.  Conversations have begun at KC about how we might work for solutions to a number of issues related to violence, here in our country and abroad.  So President Obama's press conference announcing a series of executive actions he plans to take with the hopes of reducing gun violence in our country caught my attention.  It was especially moving to me to see the president moved to tears as he remembered the children who died at Sandy Hook Elementary school two years ago.

Despite the outraged responses of the president's opponents, the measures Obama proposed strike me as extremely modest.  Last year, I might have even called them pointless.  Isn't there something a bit cynical about saying we are going to address such a significant problem by doing so little?  

But my experience with Help End Homelessness HC, Inc. has changed my mind.  I no longer see small actions designed to address huge problems as inadequate.  Because while those actions will most likely not make a significant change in the number of people who die from gun violence in 2016, these actions address head-on the feeling that nothing can be done about this problem.  Obama is refusing to despair--and that is profoundly encouraging to me.

As Cheryl Strayed says, change is one person deciding to do one thing differently one time.  That's all we need to do to start addressing the problems we despair of ever solving.  I am starting the year hopeful that change is possible.