AM Radio Justice


August 24, 2014

It has been a busy summer and like other folks who blog and run a farm, the blog settles down somewhere in the back forty waiting for a moment of rest—often after fall harvest.

Though farm work is busy and there have been more pastoral visits than normal, the summers weeklong SAGE Quest group visits are done. After weeks of folk at the farm, having justice conversations, it seems as if some extra time has popped up (One reoccurring conversation this summer was on time…more about why that last sentence is a bit problematic another day.). So, maybe a little more time for writing and a regular blog entry are in the future, but I miss those daily conversations with visitors that often got a bit edgy.

A conversation arose last month due to a public radio announcement. When SAGE groups are around I keep the farm truck radio set to an AM country station. Two reasons. You get a taste of local culture and a taste of rural justice. Many folk visit the farm thinking country music a bit backwards. However, by having the radio set to an AM station, playing older country music (because it is an AM station), I get to point to the justice of musicians like Guy Clark and bring about a reconsideration—Like many rural folk in my landscape who don’t understand Hip-Hop culture and the justice of much Rap music, neither do many non-rural folk grasp the justice many country musicians (though let’s be truthful and say both have a fair amount of junk).

So, the conversation happened like this. I’m on the road Tuesday, mid-morning, with two youth in the pickup. We were heading for Noah’s Ark, the areas only homeless shelter. We’re three miles from the farm, turning north onto South Wapato Road and an announcement comes over the radio, “It is illegal for drivers to give to panhandlers at busy intersections in Yakima.”

Now imagine this, its early morning, you’re in the front seat of a pickup with this old boy who is listening to country music on an AM station—none which is makes sense to two senior high school students who are fairly certain they should still be sleeping—heading toward a day’s work with the poor at a homeless shelter, and you hear that should you meet someone on your way to the homeless shelter who is hungry and choose to give them your sack lunch, you are breaking the law. If you can imagine that, you might also be imagining “where the hell did I just end up?” I am wondering how I keep them from thinking my neighbors and I are not a bunch of dumb-ass rednecks.

We are not going to give to the poor is a helluva comment. It lends itself to a helluva conversation. Therefore, as two urban young adults are about to gear up about my redneck landscape I asked that we deal with the comment this afternoon when we have a bit more time. Interesting enough, by that afternoon I’ve heard a follow up announcement, which I brought to the conversation, saying, “If you are afraid of someone who is panhandling call 911.” In addition, a quick look online noted while it is illegal for hungry people to ask for food at an intersection, it is not for a campaign worker to hand out political literature. Well now, that was plenty on which to begin a conversation.

Having a conversation about panhandlers is not uncommon. And having communities do what they can to end the practice isn’t uncommon. A number of years ago I preached about poverty and homelessness in a wealthy community not far from Monterey Bay, California. After worship, while having a cup of coffee in the fellowship hall, a person walked up and proudly said, “We have no homeless in our community! Last month the police and city council announced homelessness had been eradicated!” As I listened to this well educated person in this liberal tourist community of wealthy folk, I was surprised they were not willing to consider that just maybe the local police, city council, and businesses had been successful in creating a community atmosphere (perhaps through laws and legislation?) where the poor and homeless would choke if they stayed. Is any community without homeless doing justice if all one has to do is drive ten minutes to the neighboring community to experience folk sleeping on the sidewalk?

Whether is it Yakima or a posh California coastal town, the day a community creates an atmosphere—laws, ordinances, radio announcements—that choke the life at of those who struggle within their community, they’re playing at the edge of evil. At this point the afternoon conversation took a breath and thought about evil. Evil, is a harsh word, as it should be. Using the word evil should be seldom, but forceful. Evil goes way beyond bad and very bad. Two questions arose in the conversaton: is this evil?, if so, what is done in the face of evil?

The question of evil settled in on the day’s second announcement—if you are afraid of someone who is panhandling call 911. While pondering the statement a query came up, “Does the announcement itself instill fear?” Consensus, yes. The announcement was not about being afraid but about instilling fear of the poor. And therein lies evil. For when one is counseled to fear another human being and urged to call the authorities, it is but a small step for the everyday, normal, middle-class individual to call the authorities on their Jewish German neighbor/hungry Yakima Neighbor/homeless California coastal town neighbor (Surprised a high school student would use their world history (WWII) to make a point?).

Which led to the second question, what is done in the face of evil? By far the harder question for it calls one to self-reflection, a consideration of risk, and action. Conversation quiets in the face of action. For life is easy when stays in the realm of the intellect. Action though calls for the holistic person to show up at the street corner and engage the intellect, the physical, the emotional, and the spiritual. This can be fearful, for such engagement means one has to put themselves out there and nakedly speak their voice in the face of opposition.

There were no solutions, no great insights, no painting of signs nor picketing that afternoon. Only the beginning of a conversation that has many more questions than answers. Certianly that is not enough as we bar the hungry from asking for food and we sweep the homeless from our streets. But I saw grief for the poor and non-action angst in the faces of high school students that afternoon, and that, I believe, is the hope of AM radio justice.

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