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Opinion - As I grow older, I pay more attention to the workings of our governments. Following the mechanisms of how we govern ourselves at the local, state, and national levels has become a new hobby for me. On some days it's more thrilling than a soap opera, and others it's filled with the boredom of routine motions. Growing up, I had a passing interest in how government worked. Being the grandkid of a former FBI agent turned chief of police turned state legislator, and having served as a page in the Texas House will do that to you. I never participated in a mock-congress, but recently I watched some Central High School students participate in one, envious of that opportunity they have. Deep down, I’m an optimist and believe that governments exist for the betterment of all the people. I really do.
But in today’s America, there is this giant divide between left and right. There is so much rhetoric, so much group speak, that is filled with vitriol that I wonder if we can ever get back to the place where we worked together. My grandfather was a lifelong Democrat. I voted Republican most of my life. And yet I learned a lesson from him. “The ‘other side’ isn’t your enemy” I remember him telling me. I also remember meeting a lot of Concho Valley residents when we moved to San Angelo saying, “Your grandfather is the only Democrat I ever voted for because he’s an honest man who fights for us.”
Now that sentence strikes me oddly in our divided country. People on both sides are so entrenched in their party’s beliefs that they ignore the person on the ballot. The speeches from both sides vilify their opponents, making them out to be some of the most terrible people in the world. They build up the fear because they know that in doing so they are positioning themselves as the savior of our problems. It is seen as the problems are created by "them," but the solution is for "us," and everyone has to pick a side and fight to defend it with everything you have. But the “them” and the “us” aren’t enemies, even though we’re told we are. The “them” and the “us” are our neighbors.
A few years ago, in the depths of the pandemic lockdown, our church started a twice weekly food distribution. My pastor (shout out to Tim Davenport-Herbst) pulled me out of the funk of sitting around my backyard and into assisting. It was hard. I had never really been face to face with people in need in such a repeated way. I struggled. There were people in expensive cars, some dressed up, asking for free food. I was judgmental. Tim told me that we don’t know the full story...they could have had a great job, bought a new car, and then the pandemic took away their income. They could be picking food up for someone else. And yes, they could be dishonest. Our job wasn’t to judge, but to assist. It was one of those “aha” moments people talk about. I now saw people as God sees them...the same...needing help. The same...worthy of care. The same...just like me.
I started working at Concho Valley Community Action Agency not long after that. In the Community Action movement (1000+ strong across the country!!), we have The Promise of Community Action:
“Community Action changes people’s lives, embodies a spirit of hope, improves communities, and makes America a better place to live. We care about the entire community, and we are dedicated to helping people help themselves and each other.”
These words are so encouraging to me. They get to the core of who we are as Americans...we help people. Look at how communities come together after a crisis. The divide of left and right disappears for a short while and we help each other.
In our communities today, there are thousands struggling to get by. If they have income, it's not enough to meet the rising costs of inflation for basic items such as food or rent. Here in West Texas, we pride ourselves on “pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps,” but what about people who don’t have those proverbial boots? Or their straps are so worn that they snap when pulled upon? A lot of times we hear people on both sides of the political aisle saying they want to help...and yet bills are passed that keep people down...that keep them stuck in their place of poverty. Or the rules to get help are so convoluted and mired in red tape that the hope promised isn’t help attained. We must do better.
I love movies and television, especially when the writing points to larger truths. Like many in the world, I’m a big fan of Ted Lasso. “I believe in believe.” I do. I believe in America. I believe that deep down we are still a country filled with good people. I believe in hope. I believe in the Promise of Community Action, where the entire community benefits...where America is a better place to live for ALL of us. There’s a hymn that I have posted in my office, For Everyone Born, A Place at the Table by Shirley Murray and Lori True. The first verse says it all:
For everyone born, a place at the table,
for everyone born, clean water and bread,
a shelter, a space, a safe place for growing,
for everyone born, a star overhead.
Each verse calls out different categories of people: for woman and man, for young and old, for just and unjust, for gay and straight.
And the chorus drives it home - And God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy, compassion and peace.
Y’all...we’re ALL in this together. We can come together and create justice, joy, compassion, and peace for each other. Not just our family and friends, but everyone in our communities.
I’ll hit you with another great movie quote...which I’ll paraphrase a little bit – these are the words of fictional president Andrew Shepard, in Rob Reiner’s The American President (written by Aaron Sorkin) “America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You've gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say... ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the prosperity of your country cannot just be for those well off. It also must be for the homeless, for those stuck in generational poverty, for the single parent struggling to get by, for the elderly living on disability checks. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.” (Italics are my edits)
America cannot just be the image of the wealthy on the cover of a magazine. It also has to be the face of the homeless, sleeping under a bridge. It also has to be the single mom who, with help from others, graduates college and creates a better life for her and her children, ending the cycle of generational poverty. It also has to be the ex-con or the drug addict who made poor choices but now is working to make amends.
We can do it. I know we can. I believe in us, America.
So, what can you do about it? How can you get involved? There are countless ways. Volunteer your time at a food pantry. Donate to organizations that do some of the work. Talk to your elected officials and let them know that you want them to do more. Just put your hand out and I bet you’ll find someone who needs help. Have a conversation with them and see/hear them for who they really are. Be present and engage...and be open to helping someone else. Because that someone is just like you...worthy of love, caring, and help.
For Everyone Born...
Mike Burnett is the Executive Director of Concho Valley Community Action Agency and holds a BA from Sul Ross St. Univ. & an MFA from the Univ. of Mississippi. Prior to his work with CVCAA Mike worked with regional and international theatre artists on world and American premieres, including for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Mike has served on the Board of Directors for the Texas Educational Theatre Association and the National Executive Committee for the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. He is a twice recipient of the Angelo State University Presidential Award for Faculty Excellence and the recipient of the Texas Tech University Chancellor's Award for Teaching. After moving to CVCAA, Mike worked with the housing program in implementing the agency’s Tenant Based Rental Assistance and Emergency Solutions Grant Rapid Rehousing/Homelessness Prevention programs. Mike is currently the Chair of the Concho Valley Homeless Planning Coalition and also serves on the Texas Homeless Network’s Community Impact Committee as well as their Coordinated Entry Steering Committee.