Making a Difference

I will admit it, I like movies.  However, I have never been one to watch a movie and then think seriously about it.  I can remember in my college days, we used to go to the movies about once a week and watch whatever was playing.  After we would go and grab coffee somewhere and the conversation normally would gravitate towards the movie we just saw.  There were all of these deep thoughts about it, and I was like, “ya, it was a good story.”  Maybe I am not a deep thinker or maybe I just like entertainment.

With that said, last night I watched two movies.  It was snowing and nasty out, and I decided that I would spend the time with movies.  The first film was Coach Carter.  I thought I had watched this movie before, but parts of it did not sound familiar at all.

coach carterCoach Carter comes into a school to take on the coaching job of the basketball team.  He had attended that school and graduated, played basketball in college, and gone on to a successful career owning his own sporting goods store.  The school was run down and the kids are caught in the cycle that many inner city kids get caught in, and the cycle never seems to break.  Coach Carter, in his own way, tries to break that cycle.  He requires his players to sign a contract saying they will attend all of their classes, sit in the front row, wear a tie and jacket on game day, and maintain a 3.5 average.  The state only requires a 3.0 aver average.

At first there is much opposition to what he was trying to do, and when he locks the team out of the gym and cancels games because they are not living up to the terms of the contract, the parents go crazy.  “Basketball is all these kids have,” one of the parents said, and Coach Carter replied with, “and I am trying to give them more.”  He was trying to instill in them a sense of respect and a sense of pride.  They had given up, they had lost hope, they were trapped in the system, and he was trying to rescue them, one kid at a time.  What I was impressed by was the fact that he was trying to change them one person at a time.  He was not trying to change the system but only those kids on his team.

I thought about that movie, seriously thought deeply about it and about what we are trying to do here as Church.  We talk a lot about making a difference in people’s lives but do we actually do that?  Do we preach to transform or do we preach to survive?  Do we stay clear of controversial topics , so we do not upset the apple cart, or do we take them straight on?  Are we working to break the cycle, or are we just contributing to it?

In a recent conversation with fellow clergy, I made the statement that if we are not willing to have the difficult discussion about causes, and it does not matter what issue, poverty, abortion, hunger etc, there are root causes to all of these things.  If we are not willing to have the conversation then we truly have no business talking.  Yes,  we have to feed the hungry and clothe the naked but what are we doing about the causes of these issues?

Next up was a movie I had never heard of called Freedom Writers.  The story is about a first year teacher, Erin Gruwell, played by Hillary Swank,freedom writers who chooses to teach in a “voluntarily integrated” school in Long Beach California.  From the start of the movie one draws the conclusion that she has no idea what she is getting herself into and that the other teachers in the school resent this “voluntary integration.”

Erin is faced with a hostile classroom where the kids are separated by gangs along racial lines, with the exception of  one white kid in the room.  She tried her best and at one point in the movie one of the kids yells at her that she has no idea what it is like to grow up where they are growing up that they could be killed in gang violence at any moment , and their survival is what is uppermost on their list.  Once again we see kids trapped in a broken system with no hope of breaking free of it.

Just a word about systems.  I think that systems are vital.  We are able to do what we do here at the Church because of a system, the Food Bank network.  The problem with systems, as I see it, is that we trap people in them.  We create something , but we have no idea how to stop it and I think this goes back to my earlier comment that we are not willing to have the larger conversation about the causes of the problem.  In all of the debate about entitlements, or whatever you want to call them, there is no discussion about how to fix the need for such programs.

Ms. Gruell works hard to understand her kids.  When I was teaching in an inner city school, this was an essential part of getting through to them.  I remember one teacher who was screaming, and I do mean screaming, at a 4th grader who would not look her in the eye when she was talking to her.  The child was of Haitian culture and Haitians do not look authority figures in the eye.  If she had taken a half hour to read about Haitian culture she would have learned this, but she would rather yell at the kid.  I call that burnout by the way.

Eventually, she had them keep journals.  They could write about anything they wanted , but they had to write every day.  She would only read them if they wanted her to, but she would not grade them, only that they did the assignment of writing each day.  Through their writings,  she was able to come to an understanding about their lives, many of them by the way, took the bus more than two hours each day to school.  About their lives in gangs and what they have seen in their homes in their extremely short lives.  They had all been touched by gang violence, and all of them knew at least one person, killed because of gang violence.  She makes a difference in their lives with the hope that she can change their lives.

These are just two examples of the tens of thousands of talented teachers out there who are doing a extraordinarily difficult job under extremely difficult situations.  But what both of these stories point to is that we have to listen.

Not wanting to go to bed I watched an episode of West Wing.  Politics aside, West Wing was one of the best produced programs on television , and I liked it.  I watched the season three opener called Isaac and Ishmael.  The story begins with a lock down of the White House.  Trapped in the building is a group a high school kids, part of a program called Presidential Scholars.  They end up in the White House Mess and meet with various members of the administration, and the conversation turns to terrorism.  They are asking questions about why the terrorists hate us and they all have ideas why, but it comes down to the fact that we are pluralistic by design.  What extremists believe, and I do not care what kind of extremist it is, but extremists believe that their opinion is the only valid one and that all others do not even need to be listened to.  In a pluralistic society,  all opinions are valid, whether we agree with them or not.  I have often said that I might disagree with what you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.

In the end, the character of Josh Lyman, tells one kids to keep talking and keep listening.  The problem we have as I see it, is we do not listen to each other.  Sure we are all talking, talking at once by the way, but are we listening.  Erin Gruwell thought she knew what she was doing in the classroom, but it was not until she listened, really listened to her students, that she was able to reach them.  Once the parents listened, and understood what Coach Carter was trying to do, they got behind him and helped him.  We need to listen.

We need to listen to people’s stories and get to know them.  I cannot stand to hear it when people vilify those who are on welfare or other programs.  Sure there is abuse and the system needs to be reformed, but take time and talk to people who are receiving benefits, get to know them , and their stories, step outside of your comfort zone and reach out it is astounding what you will learn about people if you just listen to their stories.

So what did I learn, I learned that we need to spend more times listening, I learned that we need to change the world, and it is the only way it will change, one person at a time.  We need to see people as individuals and not as their issue or their skin color, in other words, we need to be more Christ like and less judgmental, me included.

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