Monday, July 19, 2010

The Church of Small Blessings (or a Report on What We Told The Medical Students)

Hi all. First, Upcoming events:
This Friday, poverty education workshop at O'Brien Recreation Center from noon to four pm between our community residents and incoming OU graduate social work students. Lunch and training provided to residents at noon. RSVP if you can be a part of this fun and important event. We still need a handful of folks to take part.
Also health Clinic Monday and Friday mornings.
Lunch daily at Cherokee School for any 18 and under from 11:30 am to 12:30 pm.
Cooling station open at the center daily with water and more available.
Food Pantry open.
Community Health and Life surveys being taken at the center.
Stay tuned for update as we are planning an event on the site of our proposed Miracle Among the Ruins project to transform a city block here of abandoned properties into community garden, kitchen, greenspace. We still are halfway to our goal and need just $6.900 by July 30; be a part of the final 69 people, or churches, or groups of friends, who give $100 to make it happen. Go to for more details. Read the message below to understand how vital this project is for our community.
This month we have started important conversations and partnerships on racial reconciliation and our community, and will be making plans soon for a year of intentional events along these lines as well as weaving the concerns into our regular events. Of our guiding 3Rs of relocation, redistribution, and reconciliation, it is often reconciliation that gets the least attention, and yet without it the work of the other two Rs can not be sustained, just as without either one of them the other two suffer.

The Message:
We have often quoted the statistics: Our part of the Tulsa community on North Peoria has a fourteen year lower life expectancy than just six or so miles south of us on the same Peoria Ave.

Lately we have been not only trying to address the disparity in our small ways, but to talk with people about why this is the case, since the disparity has not always been true, but like the gap between the incomes of the people on both ends of the spectrum, the differences in health have been accelerating too. (We just watched the movie Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story this morning in worship, and Dorothy's comment there hit home: everyone likes it when she is feeding people, but no one likes it when she talks about why people need to be fed in the first place).

The situation, and the deeper history and reason for it, has been brought into sharp focus this month. Our health clinic at the community center is now the only OU community health clinic open on the northside, and we have been put on a one year notice if funding they receive doesn't turn around and grow, and our clinic here on the northside is only open on Monday and Friday mornings whereas the clinics on the south, east, and west sides are open Monday through Friday and are open all day. We are extremely glad and proud to have the clinic here, but the facts of the situation and the effects of funding cutbacks are revealing, and prophetic and don't reflect on the university but on the wider community local, state, and federal.

Why, then, is the area where there is the greatest need for health care the exact place where the least resources are provided? Answering that question, and putting it into perspective, puts many other things in perspective as well as why it is vital we are here, doing what we are doing, and asking for your support.

One of our mottos in our community here is that we believe small acts done in great love can change the world, borrowing a line from Mother Teresa. Since we are a small group, with few resources and put them all into mission each month so that we zero out, what we do by necessity are small acts---planting guerrilla gardens here or there, delivering bottles of cold water to those during our heat alert, simply keeping our center and its ministries open and going so a whole host of small healing encounters can take place.

But also we know, as Shane Claiborne wrote in The Irresistible Revolution, that growing smaller, and more local, enables you to do bigger things; and so we have made the kind of partnerships in the past three years that have allowed us to create the kind of life-changers that we have. The Miracle Among the Ruins project, the Four Directions Initiative, Food Justice, School Partners, and the Urban Missional Monastic community with clinic, center, and chapel in the old Turley Methodist church building are some of the big projects that happen because of small acts not only by those of us living here, but by those of you who support us. Check all those big and small acts out at or and know that your support is crucial. Thank you. We need your donations, your prayers, your spreading of our story. Small acts and big acts of support all go directly and 100 percent into our mission. We are all volunteers. It is easy and safe to donate online at the blog or send checks to A Third Place Center, 6514 N. Peoria Ave., Turley, OK 74126.

This past month we have been a community health education site for medical and premed students through OU, connecting them with residents to raise awareness about real life issues faced in health care here. Bonnie and I led two afternoon discussions and short tours with them in our area. Much of the talk focused on that disparity in life expectancy and the history of how it got that way. We told them about the joint issues of racism (segregation that led to white flight and redlining) and neglect and economic disintegration of the middle and working class that led to community fragmentation and the emptying out of community assets.

Over and over again we kept coming back to the growing list of what we call "the little things that add up" to making life a little harder for those most vulnerable. And as that list grew it dawned on me why we focus so much on the healing small acts of love and justice, not only because that is all the resources we have to focus on, but because it is at heart the creation of lots and lots of little good things creating community that work into the soul the same way and with the same influence as those little community-defeating things that take on such a big significance.

We told the medical students that we have the biggest need for health care here but the least resources directed to it because:
---our folks are sicker and so it costs more to care for them and those costs are not being paid for.
---they are sicker in part because they don't have the multigenerational experience with preventive care, or the means to access it, and their default mode is that they can't afford it so they neglect it and go into crisis to crisis mode for their health the same way so much of their life is, like going from job to no job to job, but all those jobs are without health benefits; and our society setting up health insurance based on employment punishes the most vulnerable the most. It is not, however, a lack of people and numbers coming to the clinic; the walkins were eliminated because there were too many; appointment schedules such as they are are full. But, for cost purposes, they are full with the "wrong" kinds of people.
---our clinic can accept and needs to accept health insurance to help offset the extra costs and the lack of any income coming from those we see, but our area doesn't have the population with health insurance to draw from, and those with health insurance are often the older folks who have long established connections with seeking health care on the south side and they don't shift to our clinic even though it is closer, and our clinic doesn't look like what they are used to a clinic looking like in the normal doctor's office environment.
---We just hope we can hold on until federal health insurance reform kicks in and some income streams might offset what are not here now, or that foundations who support the clinic might see their resources growing in a better economy than happened recently.
---people put up with more here that hurts them because they have too often followed the script others have repeated that their lives would be better off if they lived elsewhere, and so since they don't live elsewhere, then there must be something wrong with them; they are neglected by others so they neglect themselves. The same way a crying newborn will stop crying if not held.
---stresses act as triggers for addictions of all kinds which lead to shorter lives, and stress of employment, of family health, of not having transportation, of low performing schools, of violence, of depression all take their toll. People turn inward into themselves at the very time and in the very place that for their survival they need to be turning outward toward others.

What are some of those little things that we try to counter with our small acts? The list of little things that create attitudes that work against community health keep growing and create a culture which feeds into all those elements listed above.
---No pizza delivery to homes north of Apache, just two miles from downtown. affects community building among youth, and families. I always say it is such a small thing, but every time I mention it to groups there is an awareness of the way it is taken for granted in privileged communities. People are always shocked by the mere fact of it.
---Taking away family and community oriented space and shelter at OBrien Park and replacing it with ballparks and golf courses that often almost always benefit those who live elsewhere and are individual rather than group oriented. A little thing that signifies a lot is the new placement of a sign that reads "overflow parking" placed in front of the recreation center of the park that is used mostly by people in the area and is anything but an overflow area for the local community, but who now understand the priority that others place on the park assets.
---The pending loss of the post office, here where many of our elderly residents don't have the means to get to or use the other public or private postal offices, and where there are no fedex or ups anyway, as to get copies made or faxes done you have to go to the southside (or use our center when supplies are handy). If the postal service needs to cut funds and operations it should do so precisely in those areas where people have alternatives and the means to access them.
---The sign up at Home Depot on the south side of downtown that thanks shoppers for coming to North Tulsa; when you can claim an area south of downtown is North Tulsa you can ignore the real North Tulsa and don't have to address it;
-- The removal this coming academic year of the science teachers and gifted programs from our elementary schools on the north side, programs that were put into place here in order so our children would be able to be prepared for the science oriented magnet programs that went into our local high school. Now that has been lost. That high school, McLain, was one of the first integrated schools in Tulsa but suffered when Washington was made a magnet school, in order to fix Tulsa's segregated schools problem, because students with good grades then shifted from it to Washington, and McLain became the new old Washington in many ways in people's eyes without the strong sense of community Washington had and has. McLain is turning around more now with great staff, great students, good magnet school programs being launched, and with the birth of a new community foundation we are a part of, but it has continued to struggle from constant shuffling of administrative leadership this past year in particular, and of course its students struggle because of the lack of health in their neighborhoods.
---and in our immediate area the lack of sidewalks and infrastructure around Cherokee School, where a hit and run occurred before school was out, and where just today during the hottest part of the day I saw a family with a man in a wheelchair and a woman with three preteen and preschool aged children walking in one of the lanes of Peoria Ave toward the grocery store because there were no sidewalks.
---Across from the local school and in neighborhoods throughout the region the high percentage (40 percent of vacant residences abandoned, not for sale or rent) of abandoned rundown houses and overgrown yards showing neglect for decades, as the paperwork stacks up at the health department for the one person for the whole county in charge of trying to handle the health code violations for these neighborhoods outside the city limits.
---Once upon a time, our teachers and business people and ministers and law enforcement and even doctors lived in our neighborhoods where they worked; today the bulk of those who teach and have businesses and preach and enforce the laws and provide what little health care there is provided all live outside of our community. The students went to the local schools; now they are scattered to schools both in and elsewhere in the wider community, so that neighboring children don't attend the same schools.

All of that destroys community which destroys health. It happens drop by drop. The inverse is also true. Drop by drop as we build community we create health. And as these changes didn't happen overnight, neither will the healing, but it does seem to be harder to build up than to destroy, so it takes more intentional generosity to make it happen.

I suppose in my reports, homilies, sermons, essays, from here I have tended to lift up the small acts of love and justice that people are doing or helping others to do, and that is vital for our spirits, but we must also teach the hard facts of what got us here, and so often keeps us here stuck in the statistics and stereotypes and old stories. Ironically, it is by going through despair that deeper hope sustains us; it is by knowing our weaknesses that we can vision ways to turn them into strengths. For example, we also told the medical students, that it is the very lack of infrastructure and not having health care provided as other places do, that gives us the edge in developing revolutionary new ways and experiments to making a community better; we don't have anything to undo, so we can start from scratch better, and our vision of developing networks of trained lay health care associates within walking distance in every neighborhood, of turning the clinic inside out, of taking health care outdoors and into group clinic settings, is possible in large part because of what is not here now.

What is not here now then opens our eyes, our hearts, our minds, and our hands to what is here now and what can become from it. That in itself is a spiritual calling, and a mission worth spending your life on and in.

blessings, thanks, and more soon, Ron
ps. check into the facebook page at for worship updates and plans for Sunday mornings or other times, and to the church planting blog for more in depth on the spirituality behind all we do. And yes, I did tell the medical students that for me, when asked why we were here and not somewhere else, my main answer is because it is where I best meet Jesus.

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