I saw you on TV today. You were talking about the demonstration you are planning at the Augusta National Golf Club if they refuse to admit women members. You looked weary. I couldn’t help wondering if your spirit was in need of rekindling after so many years on the front lines. But what struck me most was your rhetoric. It, too, seemed tired, like a campaign speech at the end of a long, hard political race. The words were right but their power was depleted, spent in the engagement of many battles. I’m sure you don’t remember me but I came to your church in Chicago thirty-two years ago when we were both young in our callings. Your ministry was known then as Operation Breadbasket. I was just back from Vietnam and had just decided to leave a business career to go into urban ministry. You were the first fiery street prophet I encountered who was championing the cause of the poor. That particular Saturday you were outraged over a grocery store in your neighborhood that was closing. It was the first time I had ever heard a bottom-line business decision being referred to as “oppressing the poor.” I remember remonstrating with one of your young lieutenants that a business had to turn a profit in order to stay open. His response was that profitable stores in the chain could carry an unprofitable one, and that poor people had as much right to affordable groceries as the rich. I remember being angered by your denouncing a business as oppressive for doing what all legitimate businesses must do – turn a profit. But your message, so disturbingly radical to me then, stuck with me. It began to work on some long-held assumptions I grew up with, some unexamined beliefs about our way of doing business. It made me begin to question for the first time if there were a down-side to our competitive, free enterprise system.
Shortly after our meeting I moved to Atlanta and began working with youth in an inner-city neighborhood – actually moved in, along with my family. That’s when I saw clearly what you were talking about. Our low-income neighbors who didn’t have cars had to shop at little corner stores that charged them exorbitant prices for inferior quality food. I became as outraged as you were. The poor who could least afford it were forced to pay twice as much for their groceries as most other Americans. It just wasn’t right! I never intended to become an activist. But I simply could not look out of my front window and watch a steady stream of neighbors getting ripped off day after day by a store my wife wouldn’t buy a quart of milk in. I had to do something.
I approached an executive from the Kroger food chain about opening a store in our community. We have plenty of people in my part of town, I told him, and all of them have to eat. He smiled a patronizing smile and informed me that food stores don’t make their money on food. It’s all the non-food items – the cosmetics, alcohol, prescription drugs, all those non-food-stamp commodities – that have good profit margins, he informed me. The margin on food is only about 2%. In order for a major store to make it, there has to be sufficient “disposable income” in a community to buy the higher profit items. Get more middle-income residents in your area and Kroger would be glad to open a store there, he said.
This obviously offered no immediate solution for my needy neighbors. So I did what I saw you doing in Chicago, Jesse. I started a feeding program. We rallied volunteers to prepare hot meals and started scavenging donated food from stores and bakeries to stock a food pantry. I eventually bought out a small corner grocery store and cut the food prices to near-chain-store levels by blending in donated goods. That helped but we couldn’t really do a very good job with fresh produce and meat. I think this is where the businessman in me started to part ways with the preacher in you. While you continued to protest discriminatory business practices, I went to work on harnessing economic forces to change my community. You kept the fire to the feet of the corporate world while I worked to provide them legitimate alternatives for responsible citizenship.
I suppose it takes both approaches – the voice of the prophet and the deals of the developer. For certain, the corporate world has become far more sensitive (even paranoid) about its hiring and promotion practices than it would ever have been without your persistence. And for that we should all be grateful. Meanwhile, my low-profile plodding has helped to yield two new major grocery stores in my neighborhood competing against each other to provide the best food at the lowest prices for all my neighbors. I think that counts for something, too. For sure, the prophet and the developer use vastly different tactics, yet over the years I have come to believe that many of our goals are quite similar.
I know it has not escaped your attention that our political landscape has been changing in recent years. Here in Atlanta the politics of race has passed the point of diminishing returns. The passionate rhetoric of the civil rights movement that so inspired and mobilized a generation no longer draws much of a crowd. Even the McKinney dynasty, a fixture in Georgia politics, was dethroned this past election. Both Billy and daughter Cynthia, strong voices of the movement, were unseated by more moderate blacks speaking the language of development rather than the rhetoric of dissent. Where does the role of the prophet fit into this new landscape? I know you must wrestle with this question.
Clearly, the prophetic voice is needed as much today as the day we first entered the ministry. Kids still don’t know how to read, the drug epidemic is still stealing away their futures, marriage is a disappearing institution. The prophetic voice is badly needed. But perhaps the message must be altered to fit current realities. The discriminatory laws of the past at whose feet we once laid the blame are now gone, thanks to champions of the faith who offered themselves up for a cause worthy of their lives. The way has been cleared, opportunities lay ready for the taking, but who will lead the people out of bondage and into the promised land? Needed are the voices calling people to rise up and build. My fear, Jesse, is that a new generation of religious leaders is more consumed with building larger church structures to accommodate their upwardly-mobile members than with developing the social and economic structures that liberate people. It seems that the church is following the example of large grocery stores – pursuing people of higher incomes as they migrate out of the city rather than maintaining a focus on those most in need. Now there’s a cause worthy of a movement: reconnecting the church with the people it left behind!
Don’t be weary in well-doing, Jesse. You have endured the heat of many worthy battles. And there is still much work to do. Pick the important causes. I am not much of a golfer so I have no emotional attachment to Augusta National. It may well be a good-old-boys’ club that still thinks women belong on pedestals. But this is hardly a cause worthy of the best energies of a prophet who has access to the world stage. A protest in Augusta under the banner of equal rights for women may indeed attract world attention – certainly the sports world – but is this really strategic to our mission? Wealthy, connected women don’t need a prophet to help them get into an exclusive golf club. Keep your focus on the calling and passion that first drew you into this work. There are achieving young leaders who need to be inspired to pursue service above personal gain. There is an urban education system that languishes for lack of a new vision. There is a church living large that needs to reconnect with its primary mission. We need a prophetic voice, Jesse. But now is the time for that voice to champion the causes that produce redemptive development – especially among those who need us most.