One for All

by Rev. L. John Gable

One for All by Rev. L. John Gable
March 26, 2017

On March 13, 1964, Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was stabbed to death outside her apartment complex in the New York City borough of Queens.  The story caught national attention, not because of the particular nature or violence of the crime, but because as police investigated the crime they discovered that 37 or 38 witnesses either saw or heard the attack but did nothing in response.  The report was so shocking, to so many, that it came to be called the “Genovese syndrome” or the “bystander effect,” a demonstrated sense of indifference to the needs of one’s neighbors.

I have no idea what I would have done in that situation, so I do not stand in judgment.  I would like to think that I would have done something; however, I am not altogether sure that I would have, and here is why I say that.

Nearly 21% of Marion County residents live below the federal poverty level, compared to 14.5% of Indiana residents and 13.5% of Americans.  Poverty is accelerating in Indianapolis: in the year 2000, 11% of Marion County residents lived in poverty, now it is 21%.  Our poverty rate has increased 45% between 2007 and 2012.

32% of Marion County children live in poverty, that is 1 in 3 of our children; compared to a little over 20%, or 1 in 5, across our state and nationally.  Of the 75 largest American cities we are in the worst 25 when it comes to recent growth of child poverty.  70% of all IPS students are on the free/reduced lunch program, meaning they are eligible to receive both breakfast and lunch at school each day, often the only meals they will eat those days.  We all know it is hard to learn when you are hungry.

Only 77% of Marion County 9th graders graduate from high school in four years, compared to 87% in Indiana and 85% nationally.

The rate of violent and property crimes in Marion County is 67 crimes per 1000 people making it more than twice as high as the rates for our state or our nation.

Since 2005 our city has seen a marked increase in concentrated poverty which leads to more negative outcomes: crime, physical and mental health challenges, higher school drop-out rates and the like. According to a recent study conducted by the Brookings Institute when it comes to the increase in the number of neighborhoods with 20% or more impoverished residents, since 2005 greater Indianapolis is the 15th worst in the country, and when it comes to the increase in the number of neighborhoods with 40% or more impoverished residents during that same period, we are 4th worst.

Right across the street School 48, a school we see daily, whose children we tutor weekly, consistently receives a failing mark on the school grading system.  And I could go on.  The statistics are staggering, as are the needs.

Now you know me well enough to know that I cite these statistics, not out of blame or critique or criticism, but out of genuine care and concern.  This is our city, our community.  These are our neighbors.  They are us and we are them.  We can’t help but see what is happening around us.  We read these statistics.  We hear their cries, but then have to ask ourselves, what am I, what are we doing to help?  Some, I know, and I believe we are making a difference in some of these areas through our tutoring program, Tab Rec, the Open Door, but still I wonder, is that enough?  Is there something more I/we can/should/could be doing?  Believe me when I say, I am asking this “with” you, not “at” you, as I ask these questions of myself.

There is no question that many of these issues: crime, poverty, hunger, education, mental illness, criminal justice, all ebb and flow together.  There is no one quick fix, but surely we must be troubled by stories such as the one we heard about a year or so ago.  A man walked in to the Subway on 38th and Illinois with a gun, not to rob the store for money, but because he was hungry.  So he held the gun on the clerk while she made a sandwich for him, then he left.  In recent years the Unleavened Bread Café down the street, one of our Tab supported missions, has been broken in to several times, never for money, always for food.  There is something wrong with that picture.  There is something we can and must do, lest we succumb to the Genovese syndrome of hearing the cries but not acting to help.

In recent weeks, here in worship and on Wednesday evenings, we have been delving in to our Vision Renewal statement.  Together we have identified three desires: Greater Faith, Deeper Relationships, and a Stronger Community.  We have seen already that our desire for Greater Faith leads us in to Deeper Relationships both with God and one another, and today we can see that those together lead us to desire a Stronger Community.  What we do “in here” must be lived out “out there”.

Our Scripture passage this morning is a familiar one in which the Apostle Paul uses the analogy that the Church is like a body having many diverse parts, each with their own purpose and function, but together they function as one, collective whole.  The analogy is both beautiful and powerful, and one which Paul borrowed from the Greco-Roman culture in which he lived.  Many rhetoricians used this same analogy in an attempt to maintain the equilibrium of the society, which is shorthand for saying they were trying to keep the lower classes in their place and avoid social up-risings.  They argued, every member has been allotted a particular place and function in the fabric of society, rich/poor, slave/free, master/servant, so keep in your place and don’t make trouble. That is the way this analogy was most commonly used, but Paul turns the analogy upside down.  Instead of saying that the poor need to stay in their place to serve the rich, he instructs that the rich and privileged have a responsibility to care for the needs of the poor and disadvantaged, why?  Because we are all part of the same body.  There is unity in diversity, and interdependence between the parts.  One part of the body can’t say to another part of the body, “I have no need of you.”  One part of the body can’t say to another part of the body, “I am better, more important, than you.”  So Paul writes, “There may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.  If one member suffers, all suffer together with it (if you don’t believe that, try breaking your little toe); and if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

Paul’s teaching is clearly intended for the Church as an instruction as to how we are to deal with one another, but surely we can see that whatever we gain “in here” must be put in to application “out there.”  God did not intend His Church to be a closed off cluster, but “salt and light” to the world.  So as we identify these three visions/goals/desires we can see how they are interrelated and lead to a larger, common goal: Greater Faith leads us into Deeper Relationships which then serves a Stronger Community. To this end, I quote from the Vision Renewal statement: “Tab will work in partnership to strengthen the community, advocate for justice and promote God’s shalom for all people.  Tab will be a congregation that partners with its Mapleton-Fall Creek neighbors to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the community outside its doors, working to equip people to overcome obstacles, collaborating with individuals and organizations to advocate for justice, and recognizing that our faith and obedience will be judged by the way we walk with those in need.”

This past week nearly a dozen of us from Tab attended a wonderful conference at Christian Theological Seminary as part of their “Faith and Action” project.  One of the presenters I heard spoke of the various ways we try to address societal issues and she categorized them as primarily addressing the needs of the individual, the institution, the community or through advocacy and policy making.  Think for a moment about any issue you consider a societal problem: take for instance education or hunger.  One approach is to address the concern on an individual basis, and we do a lot of that here.  We meet with individuals who come to us with needs for food or utility assistance.  We tutor children from School 48, one on one.  That individual approach then impacts us as an institution as we invest a substantial amount of resources in to helping to meet the needs of our neighbors: financial assistance, staff time, building usage and so on.  One could argue that this is why we are here and why we stayed at 34th and Central, “to be a light for Christ in the metropolitan area” and to help meet the needs of this particular community.  But it begs the question, is that approach sufficient?  Are these the only ways we can help meet those needs?  No, every person we feed today is going to be hungry again tomorrow, every utility bill we pay this month reoccurs the next.  So perhaps we need also to think about what we can do for the whole community to help people move out of poverty.  Is it possible for us to move beyond feeding the man to teaching him how to fish, and even beyond that to creating opportunities for him to own the rod and reel, the boat, even the pond?  That line of thinking about societal needs moves beyond an individual or institutional response to a communal or community response. And then, even beyond that, there are some who realize that there are systems of disparity or injustice in place that are so great they must be addressed by changes in policies, so they are called to ministries of advocacy.

As I look over our body, gathered here, I see that we together have the capacity and the capability to address these needs in a myriad of different ways.  There are some among us who are hard-wired to do one on one ministries with a neighbor or a child; others who are best at serving on committees or task forces who can help us think about our institutional response; still others who are better suited to represent us out in the community; and then perhaps there are those among us who find themselves in positions of access and influence such that they can affect policy through advocacy.

Friends, we can be “difference makers” for Christ and His Kingdom, and for the citizens of this community, once we recognize our responsibility as fellow members of the same body; once we realize that we are all in this together; once we experience the suffering of others as our suffering; once we hear their cries for help as an opportunity for us to do something.  Greater Faith, Deeper Relationships, a Stronger Community are three legs of the same stool, each as interrelated and interdependent as are our hands and our feet.

Sociologist Margaret Mead writes, “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  In the same vein, the well-respected Quaker teacher and theologian, Elton Trueblood, writes, “Somewhere in the world there should be a society consciously and deliberately devoted to the task of seeing how love can be made real and demonstrating love in practice.  Unfortunately, there is really only one candidate for this task.  If God, as we believe, is truly revealed in the life of Christ, the most important thing to Him is the creation of centers of loving fellowship, which in turn infect the world.  Whether or not the world can be redeemed in this way we do not know, but it is at least clear that there is no other way.”

One of the speakers that day at CTS closed his talk in this way.  His name is Gregory Ellison and he grew up here in Indianapolis, not far from here.  He now is a professor of pastoral care and counseling at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta.  He remembers as a child, right over here at the Martin Luther King Center, telling the director that he wanted to do something to change the world, and asked her, “How can I do that?”  She wisely told him, “You can start by changing the three feet around you. You can start making a difference in the world by making a difference in the way you relate to those who are most immediately in your circle of influence.”  Her words were wise and true.  This morning as you leave worship, an usher will hand you a piece of yarn, 3 feet in length.  My charge to you is, this week, in the next three days, I want you to make a difference in the world by making a difference in the way you relate to those who are within your immediate, three foot, circle of influence: at home, at work, at school, with the waiter in the restaurant, the clerk at the store, because we are all in this together.

Let me close with a story which is an antidote to the Kitty Genovese story I opened with.  One day a 9-1-1 operator got a call from a woman reporting that her neighbor’s apartment was being burglarized.  The operator asked if the burglary was still in progress, the woman said “No, but the burglar is still here.”

“What is he doing?” asked the operator.

“He is sitting outside on the sidewalk,” she answered.

A bit confused, the operator asked, “What is he doing out there?”

“Oh, my neighbors have him surrounded.  They heard my cries for help and all came running.  So, take your time getting here, he’s not going anywhere.”  I love that story.

Friends, Greater faith calls us into Deeper Relationships which creates a Stronger Community, and these are the things that make for peace.  All to the honor and glory of God.  Amen.