If They Come…Will You Build It?

This inaugural post, announcing the celebration of GBM’s 45th Anniversary comes in the only form characteristic of the work GBM has undertaken over these past forty-five years – an invitation to join our shared community in celebrating this milestone of serving people, building community and pursuing justice in challenging times.

For forty-five years, GBM has responded with an often eager, sometimes wary, but always responsible “yes” to the existential question facing all those who would follow faith to its predictable, though sometimes inconvenient answer to the question, “who is my neighbor?”.  Both deep poverty in the land of plenty and exclusion of people because of who they are in the land of the “melting pot” are no “Field of Dreams” fantasies but remain all too harsh realities in our communities.

For forty-five years, the Board of Directors, volunteers and staff of GBM have responded to emerging needs arising out of our divided communities by convening diverse leaders across boundaries of race, income and religion to consider gaping holes in society’s safety nets and, when necessary, constructing new models of organizing individual good will into collective good works.

For forty-five years, the Prophet Micah’s exhortation to “do justice, show mercy, and walk humbly with God” has not been heard by GBM as a multiple-choice proposition as in:

No, the God we share did not intend the message that way. Justice, mercy, and humility come as a package. Their interdependence cannot neither be separated nor denied. Rather, GBM has boldly sought to interpret Micah 6:8 as our call to serve people, build community and pursue justice – all of the above.

Serving People

In GBM’s works of compassion, we rely on the voluntary contributions of food, clothing and funds as we work alongside others helping organizations in the community to meet the emergency needs of many families in need and help fill the recurring needs for food and clothing for many adults and children living on fixed, but insufficient incomes. GBM is not the largest provider of such services in our community and that has never been our aspiration, but we are among the best in this field of service in seeing that families in need are not defined by the needs they exhibit but by their status as children of God.

Theologian Karl Barth, in his book, “Against the Stream”, published in 1948, says, “there is no place in the Bible where the rights of the rich are proclaimed, where God appears as the Lord and Savior of the rich and of their wealth, where the poor themselves are exhorted to preserve the wealth of the rich and remain poor themselves merely for the sake of the rich.”  But there are many places he says, “where the poor are extolled as blessed where they are called the chosen of God”.

Walter Brueggermann writes in his Book, “Good News to the Poor”, that “compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness.”

Pursuing Justice

Because GBM takes the hurt of poverty and race and class exclusion seriously, we draw upon our interactions with families in need to inform our own agenda for wakening others and ourselves to the need for Systems Change.

Systems are those arrangements of power by which we relate to each other as human beings in our daily public lives.  Health care, employment, banking and finance, transportation, housing, political participation, legal rights are all examples of systems that are critical to full human living. When these systems include and support, they bring life.  When these systems exclude participation for a group or individual or when they exploit people, then they have become unjust and must be changed.

This is the basis of GBM’s 45-year history of community organizing. This work is often slow and extremely difficult, but God calls us to be faithful in the work for justice for all people, especially the most vulnerable and those with the least economic and social power.

These are the reasons that GBM in 2013 launched a campaign for immigrant victims of wage theft to recover illegally withheld wages, supported improved and expanded public transportation in the Birmingham region, and conducted educational work explaining the deep and continuing connection between Alabama’s systemic dysfunctions at the state and local levels with the archaic Jim Crow State Constitution of 1901.

Building Community

In all of these efforts, GBM is aware that to do service work without organizing for justice can lead to forms of paternalism and to organize for justice without having an honest and conscious connection to people in need can lead to vanity.

It’s true that because people matter, systems matter. If we are to care about people, we must address the systems that affect them unjustly, intentionally or not. At the same time, we are cognizant of the fact that even harmful systems exist to someone’s benefit.

The work of transformation of harmful systems to policies and practices that recognize the needs of the poor is arduous work. Particular systems come and go, they can crumble and fall. But systems will not be transformed until faithful peoples in all of their capacities come to recognize that their own humanness is damaged when we as a society become numb to the cries of the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized.

GBM works to build community, across the lines of race, religion and economic status – uniting the poor and the non-poor – to struggle against such numbness and to convene people of faith and good will to realign the power we do have to build social safety nets that value the lives of all in our shared communities. This is how GBM launched more than twenty organizations in Birmingham over the last forty-five years ranging from Meals-on-Wheels, the Crisis Center and the Firehouse Shelter to Alabama Arise, Alabama’s only legislative organization focusing on the needs of the state’s poor.

We of GBM thank you for supporting GBM over the past years and ask you to continue to work with us to weave a just and compassionate community for us all. We will remain true to our ideal of responding to the emerging needs of the least of these, our neighbors. And when the challenges facing our neighbors come before us, we ask you to join us (or we will join you!) in building the unity and collaboration necessary to build what it takes to better serve justice and better serve our neighbors in need.