Playing Poverty

Web_Banner_Fountain-skyline-750x400At a church luncheon on Sunday I watched two men pile their plates with chicken, lasagna, sandwiches, salads and then pack more food into to-go containers.

We talked as we ate. Charlie works at a call center earning $15 an hour answering questions about people’s utility bills. Luwayne and I talked about video games.  He appeared to be disabled and I don’t think he works. At least he didn’t mention it.

Two guys needing to-go boxes from the church lunch to make their meals stretch through the week. That’s not someone playing poverty. That’s someone living in poverty.

In my past life as a reporter for The Post-Standard. I wrote a story about some well-meaning Girl Scouts pretending to be homeless for the night in a local hockey rink.  The girls were excited for the sleepover. They were given cardboard boxes, which they decorated with sparkles and signs. I’ve never seen sparkles and drawings on the side of a homeless camp.

I’ve been to Empty Bowl fundraisers, where I bought beautiful bowls crafted by talented Syracuse University ceramic students, and received servings of soup created by local chefs. I’ve never seen a homeless person with a fancy bowl.

This past week I got an email from our old church in Skaneateles, New York, a quaint lakeside town outside of Syracuse. Members were asked if they wanted to take part in a poverty simulation on Saturday with other churches. I’ve never seen anyone living in poverty asked to attend a simulation for what it’s like to live in the middle or upper class.

What an eye opener that would be. Enough food to eat. To-go boxes filled with restaurant leftovers in the fridge. A clean bed. A car. A job to go to. A paycheck. A doctor to visit when sick. A roof over your head.

I’m not dissing any of these admirable programs meant to bring a focus on the needy.  It’s just I don’t believe I’ll better understand what it is to be needy by playing poverty.

Poverty is a tricky thing. There’s no one method to end it. Some people prefer sleeping outdoors on the streets. Strange, but true. Others wandering the streets or squatting in abandoned buildings are mentally ill or addicted to drugs or alcohol.  Families are left homeless when someone loses a job or becomes ill. So many people are one paycheck away from having nothing to eat.

While in Pittsburgh for the winter Joe and I have hooked up with The Well, a church planted by the North American Mission Board in the Mount Washington. The neighborhood is a mix of people living in homes with million dollar views overlooking the city and poor folks who live on the streets behind them.

The Well’s stated mission is to love God, love people and do something about it.

It’s a diverse congregation. Black and white. Young and old. People who have money, those struggling to get by, and those living on the streets. People hug you when you enter church. The pastor quietly asks those whom he knows are on the streets if they have a warm place to sleep.

Once a month the church serves a meal to the local community, and once a month the congregation gathers like family for lunch, which is where we met Charlie and Luwayne.

The church has clothes for those who need them. A food pantry. And is the site of a once-a-month food bank distribution.

And while the church can’t permit people to sleep in the building, there are plans this year to renovate the bathrooms installing showers and laundry facilities that will be opened to those who need them.

The members of the Well see poverty, some live it and members are doing something about it.

There’s no need to play poverty here.



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Merry Christmas, Beloved


In the movie The Preacher’s Wife, Courtney B. Vance plays the discouraged Rev. Henry Biggs, who is helped by an angel. At the climax of the movie, the redeemed reverend gives a rousing Christmas sermon that begins with the word “Beloved.”

I love that movie. It contains the handsome Denzel Washington as Dudley the angel and Whitney Houston as the reverend’s wife. The story is as uplifting as the music.


It’s an old-fashioned word that goes beyond the word “love.”

Love gets around. It slips out in place of “goodbye” with a hug, on telephone calls, in emails and cards.

We “love” food and music, books and movies. We “love” people who are fun to be with. We sometimes “love” our work.

Beloved goes beyond that. It’s intimate, more than love.

It’s hugging your daddy, your face pressed against his white t-shirt and smelling cigarette smoke and Vitalis.

It’s the glances exchanged in the car, when you can’t believe this wonderful person is still sitting next to you after 40 years of growing up together.

It’s a grandchild, almost as big as you, crawling up on your lap for a snuggle

And beloved is of God.

The Bible tells us that we are God’s sons and daughters. We are His beloved. That most intimate of loves.

In his movie sermon, the Rev. Biggs says to look at face of someone you love is to see the face of God.

I see you.

Merry Christmas, Beloved.



We’re grounded

20181217_101051That’s right.

Joe and I will be spending our winter in Pittsburgh. Not a bad place to be, but not the sunny Texas gulf shores we had planned on.

Here’s how we got here.

After being on his feet for more than 30 years are as a retail manager and then a teacher, Joe has varicose veins.  This fall they started acting up while we were on the beach in North Carolina. He went to a doc in the box who recommended he visit a vein clinic.

He put it off. We were already scheduled to spend three weeks in Pittsburgh around the holidays where we had doctor appointments scheduled.

The doc at the Pittsburgh vein clinic evaluated Joe’s legs and recommended an out patient procedure. He could do it and Joe would be good to go in a week. But, that old ugly insurance raised its head.

The insurance company wants Joe to wear compression stockings for 12 weeks before it will even consider the surgery.  And the doc said the clotting in Joe’s legs is so severe he doesn’t want him to drive long hours.

That means we’re grounded, in a campground, in Pennsylvania, in the winter.


We could skirt the camper with sliver insulating panels and buy lots of propane. I could wrap my self in throws and sit in the dark with the shades pulled to keep warm.

I mean, we could do it. But I wouldn’t be happy.

Joe’s mantra has always been “Happy wife, happy life.”

So we began looking for a short-term rental apartment, an expensive proposition. We found one in the city, near a park and children’s museum. It had a gym and  dog park. It would even take Nikki and Pocket, for a fee.

We put down a deposit and paid an application fee. Then the nice young rental agent wanted a picture of the dog, for the insurance company. The complex restricts dogs. They don’t accept “lock jaw dogs,” like pitbulls.

Nikki is a lab mix rescued from the pound. She has blue eyes, which makes us think she has some husky in her. She’s also 13 years old, sleeps a lot and is such a scaredy cat she runs when you jangle your keys.



The insurance company wanted us to guarantee her breed. There was a lot of faxing and phone calls back and forth with the vet. Bottom line, no one can tell you what the mix is and we’re out of an apartment.

Plan B.

Luckily, my son-in-law is part of a co-working space co-op called Work Hard Pittsburgh, which has an apartment above its space. The tenant is scheduled to move out Jan. 1. The co-op has kindly allowed us to rent the apartment for a short time and they don’t care what kind of dog we have.


We’re three minutes away from my daughter, who has gym equipment and a washer- dryer in her house. There’s a park near by. And my cousins have graciously said they will allow us to park the motor home on their horse farm.

So, Jan. 1 we move in above an old hardware store. We’re reliving college. We don’t have a bed, a couch, a table or a lamp. We’re buying a futon and borrowing the rest.

We’ll be warm and close to family. If you have to be grounded, there’s no place I’d rather be than Pittsburgh.

Happy wife, happy life.




There just aren’t enough volunteers

hurricanemichael3_101218gettyPhoto by

Josh Hipp, a disaster relief coordinator, sat on top of a picnic table across the bonfire from me and stated a harsh fact that has burned in my mind ever since.

“Volunteers like to go off to the latest disaster,” he said. But with the numbers of natural disasters piling up–Hurricanes Florence and Michael, wildfires in California–volunteers are beginning to burnout, Hipp said.

It’s getting harder and harder to get people willing to give up a week or two repairing someone’s home when the natural disasters come one on top of the other, he said. Everyone wants to rush to the latest spot, but what about the people devastated by last year’s hurricane or the one before that?

I met Josh at a bonfire on one of our last nights of a three-week stint volunteering for NOMADS in Crystal River, Florida this fall. It was an easy gig. We were working for the Crystal River United Methodist Church building new classrooms for a school the church is starting, painting the outside of a house for one of the members, weeding and generally doing maintenance.

NOMADS is a Methodist organization that does service projects in churches and communities. Its members also repair homes damaged by natural disasters. The group has disaster rebuilds in the Midwest and Louisiana for homes flooded out, in Key West, North Carolina and now the Florida Panhandle for hurricane damage.

NOMADS isn’t the first group into a disaster zone. They’re the ones that arrive a year later to repair your roof, sheet rock the walls or put in wiring.

Josh has been traveling around the country for the last eight years doing disaster rebuilds. Lately, his motorhome and trailer have been parked on the church’s property while he works in the area.

He supervises groups like NOMADS repairing homes for people who have gotten grants to do repairs after natural disasters. Recently he’s been working for Catholic Charities supervising Mennonites repairing homes damaged on Florida’s Gulf Coast last year.

Before his time was up in Florida  another hurricane had wrecked the coast. He’s already been called to go up to the Florida Panhandle where this fall Hurricane Michael wiped some towns off the map.

Well-meaning people have already flooded the area with help, but the nagging question Josh faces is will there be enough volunteers to do the work a month or a year from now when the repair grants are approved and the materials bought. Who will hammer the nails or install the wiring?

Experts say the climate is becoming more extreme. More devastating storms. That means more flooding. More damaged homes needing repairs and more people needed to do the work.

Who will do the necessary repair work that will be needed because our leaders have failed to work on the larger question of lessening man’s impact on climate. See the government’s latest climate report.

Will there be enough volunteers?


Slave and Free at Monticello


James L. Dick’s copy of Rembrant Peale’s Jefferson and Monticello from the Monticello image gallery.  Issac Granger Jefferson image from

I’ve always been fascinated by cemeteries. So when we began to travel in our motor home I decided to write about history based on the stories told by old cemeteries.

At least that’s what I told my colleagues I would do.  Until this fall that was more of a dream than a plan.

In October, Charley and I visited Monticello. It’s there that I was struck by the conflicting and hypocritical stories told by two cemeteries found on the estate.  And what it says about us today.

We  visited Monticello several years ago taking the standard tour of Jefferson’s Little Mountain outside of Charlottesville, Virginia.  We came away at the end of a hot August day tired, sticky and impressed with the breath and depth of Jefferson’s work and life.  Like many visitors we ended that day looking at the family cemetery and reading Jefferson’s chosen epitaph.

We left, however, with an incomplete image of Jefferson and his impact on American life.  Our more recent visit started and ended on a  different note.

This time we arrived at Monticello on a crisp, clear autumn day. As we walked along a gravel path from the parking lot to the ticket booth we passed a small wooded lot enclosed by a simple split rail fence.

This seemingly random plot of ground is the African-American slave cemetery for Monticello.  Archaeologists mapped and found images of graves in the ground before digging just enough to identify specific burial sites without disturbing the remains.

Forty souls are buried here with no identification or record.   Several graves have large rocks that serve as simple headstones, most have no markers.  Visitors have left flowers near several burial sites or placed small rocks on the larger ones to honor and remember those who died while enslaved.   A simple sign lists more than 70 enslaved African-Americans who died under Jefferson’s control.  Who was buried here we will never know.

This simple plot of ground stands in direct opposition Jefferson’s graveyard and speaks to the dichotomy and hypocrisy of American History.   Slave vs Free in the land where “all men are created equal.”




Americans are familiar with the Jefferson who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.  We all recognize the man who designed Monticello and experimented with crops on his estate.

For years I taught students about his passion for small government and his belief in the common man.  I pointed out his purchase of Louisiana and the promotion of westward expansion through the work of Lewis and Clark.

I also told of  his dark side as a slave owner and the father of Sally Heming’s children.  A woman he enslaved and whose children he held in bondage.  Standing at the graves of African-Americans held in bondage by Jefferson I was struck by just how shallow and incomplete this picture of Jefferson is.

This visit to Monticello included a walking tour of Slavery at Monticello.  The docent, Dave Thorson, provided a 40- minute look at a different Jefferson.   This Jefferson owned more than 600 slaves in his lifetime and normally had around 105  working at any one time on his lands.  Allowing for the 70 or more souls listed in his records as dying, there are roughly 420 people unaccounted for.  The man who argued that “all men are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights”  sold more than 400 people as if they were cows or sheep.  Clearly Jefferson did not believe that African-American slaves were endowed with these rights.

Mr. Thorson described not the enlightenment thinker we all know, but a slave owner bound by the constraints of economics and social position.  This Jefferson tested the character of 10 year-old boys by putting them to work from sunrise to sunset, six days a week in a nail foundry.  Each young man was required to make 1,000 nails a day.  Reaching this quota moved a young African-American into training for a skill to use on the plantation. Failure to hit this mark meant the young man sent to work in the fields.

Thorson told the story of one young man who hid the tools of another as a joke.  The overseer whipped him for not making his quota and Jefferson then ordered this young man removed from Monticello at night and sold south.   The message was one of simple fear and terror to gain compliance from African-American slaves.

Following the tour Charley and I watched a new 5 minute film about the  Hemings family and their relationships with Jefferson.  Sally Hemings came to Monticello when Jefferson married her owner and half sister Martha Wayles, the daughter of a slave trader.

Following Martha’s death Jefferson fathered 6 children with Sally Hemings.  Two died young. Jefferson owned his four surviving children until his death.  In the end, the man noted for his calls for equality freed only seven of the slaves he owned in his life time; Sally Hemings was not among them.


Our stop at Jeffreson’s grave highlighted the dichotomy of slave vs free at Monticello and in America. The Jefferson family members are buried in a plot of ground not much larger than the slave plot we viewed earlier.  A large wrought iron fence surrounds the cemetery and its 100 plus graves.  All are well maintained and clearly marked with headstones bearing names and dates.  Jefferson’s is by far the largest and the simple obelisk highlights his proudest moments. Clearly great care and thought went into remembering this pillar of American History and none was given to those who  made his life possible.

The graveyards at Monticello bring into stark contrast two sides of a hypocritical life in early America.  Jefferson one of the founding fathers is revered for his calls for equality and his body of work, and rightly so.  However, for too long we glossed over the dark and evil side of this man’s life.  Monticello, Jefferson’s monument to his life, was built on the backs of slaves.  Jefferson the author of the Declaration of Independence terrorized and controlled the lives of African-Americans for his personal benefit.  How we deal with this dichotomy of history going forward says less about who Jefferson was than who we are today.

Lincoln, Starry Night and Route 66



We took a wrong turn in Pontiac, Illinois and ended up viewing art work worthy of public art in New York, Chicago or Philadelphia.

The three tall metal sculptures called “Seasons of Life” were located in a playground in this small city in Central Illinois. They depict three eras of life: childhood, young adulthood and old age. We wouldn’t have seen them if we hadn’t stayed in Pontiac for three weeks.

We were in Pontiac to work with NOMADS, a Methodist mission group that travels around the country rebuilding churches and camps or doing disaster relief. We were in Pontiac to repaint a senior citizen’s facility.

That’s one of the things I like about our new lifestyle. We travel to new places and stay long enough to get to know a community with all its little quirks.


I doubt there are many places like Pontiac, a city of just 13,000. You reach it either by driving on Interstate 55 or on two-lane roads stretching for miles through corn and soybean fields, which is what we did. Two-lanes give you a real feeling for just how far out there the middle of America is.

The city doesn’t look like much. There’s a Caterpillar plant and the county court house, a couple of restaurants. But this little place supports four museums, all free, plus several house museums. That’s a lot of museums for a small town. There’s even a free trolley to take you around, but really it’s so small you could probably walk it.

Route 66, in all its forms, runs through Pontiac, and the town capitalizes on it big time.


It hosts a Route 66 Museum and Hall of Fame, a Pontiac-Oakland Automobile Museum and Resource Center and The Bob Waldmire Experience (celebrating a man who traveled Route 66 handing out literature).


The Livingston County War Museum and the Life in the 1940s Exhibit are in the same building.  I was drawn to the dozens of newspapers from around the world that showed the run up to Pearl Harbor and its aftermath. And for some odd reason there is a recreation of an old radio station.


The city also hosts a Museum of Gilding Arts, which is the art of pounding gold or silver into into extremely thin sheets that are used for decorating.

The city boasts Murals on Main Street where people have also installed kiddie cars painted to look like Transformers, Lincoln and Van Gogh’s Starry Night.


We walked part of the Lincoln Trail,  which goes from the courthouse where the president practiced law as a young attorney to the house were he stayed for two weeks after a snow storm stopped the trains from running and kept him from returning to Springfield, Illinois.


And we walked across one of the three antique swinging bridges across the Vermilion River that used to bring workers from their homes on one side of the city to jobs on the other.


Then on the last day a wrong turn took us to the Seasons of Life Statues, public art worthy of the Met in a playground.


What odd things have you found on your travels?








We outran Hurricane Florence

Hurricane Florence has made me paranoid. That’s what happens when you move your house four times in a week to avoid a major hurricane. It seemed like she was following us.

As Florence approached we were ordered off Hatteras Island, booted out of a KOA in Greensboro, North Carolina, and fled the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.


Now we’re in a campground 50 minutes north of Pittsburgh, taking stock and getting ready to drive back to the beach.

I ache for those who couldn’t just drive out of the storm’s path. They lost everything in the storm and its flooding. Joe and I hope to be able to help in someway with the recovery.

The journey, while a little crazy, has been fun. Check out the elk. We saw them up close and personal in the Smokies. The KOA refunded us all but $20 of the cost of our stay in Greensboro because we only stayed one night instead of our planned six because of the hurricane.


We visited with our daughter and son-in-law and dined at Alla Familgia–the best Italian restaurant in Pittsburgh. Tonight we’re going to a Pirates game. Go Bucs!11aflorence_4

Outrunning our first hurricane on the road wasn’t that bad.

There are bits of joy even when there are perils in the journey.