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Philly poverty

Philly poverty

Fight it by performing, or by hard work and prayer

Editors tend to toss aside press releases, but one in a thousand begs for a response.

Flash: The "March of the Americas" was scheduled to begin on Oct. 1, 1999, with representatives of "poor people's organizations" gathering in Washington, D.C., for a 30-day walk to the United Nations in New York. The plan was to have not a dull walk but "an around-the-clock cultural festival, with musicians and poets performing during the day as the March makes its way through five states over thirty days, performing at rallies each night, and performing in bars and clubs."

Flash: "A special Music Day is being organized for October 16 when the March passes through Philadelphia. Music people (artists, journalists, industry folks, fans) will make a point of marching on that day." At the end of the month the goal is to stage at the UN "a tribunal that will charge the United States government with violating the economic human rights of tens of millions of people. Testimonies from thousands of poor people of all ages and races will be part of the indictment."

That's one way of fighting poverty, I suppose. But my son Daniel and I encountered another type of anti-poverty work in Philadelphia this past summer. Bethel Community Bible Church fights poverty in a very poor area of the city, and does it without press releases, club performances, or UN indictments.

Young Ralph Rosario was our initial guide. Bethel has offered him the opportunity to become the responsible man of his family. Ralph told of how his heroin-using, HIV-positive father abandoned him, along with his mother and sister, years ago. They became crack addicts who found ways to get everything (including electricity and gas) illegally, but Ralph had the faith to stay clean and begin studying at the Art Institute of Philadelphia. With donated equipment he has set up an audio-video office at the church, hoping to build a business. So far eight music groups have come to record.

Another church member, Nimo Colon, is a parapalegic weight-lifter. He tells of how while on drugs 18 years ago he accidentally shot himself through the spine. Bitter and unable to perform much manual labor, he sold drugs and saw no meaning to life until God grabbed him 12 years ago. He is now in charge of a small weight room that Bethel owns down the street. It's used by 40 men each week, with no payment or conditions for use except one: The men involved need to attend church, Bible study, or church counseling at least once per week.

We also met accountant David (Coz) Crosscomb, who came from Australia three years ago to become Bethel's director of economic development. Coz had come to America not for streets paved with gold but to see what he could do about sidewalks covered with trash. He's trying to resurrect materially several dead blocks, but the discouragement of dealing with Philadelphia officials is taking a toll on him.

"The license and inspections bureau is so politicized that it acts quickly only when connections are brought to bear," Coz noted. "Under ordinary circumstances, it takes months to have an abandoned car towed and years to close a crack house." Union-imposed regulations make fixup work harder: If a plumber comes in from elsewhere to do volunteer work, he needs to have a city license. Garbage often is not collected. "And owners have no incentive to fix up houses; they get taxed out of existence."

Frustrations abound, but Bethel folks seem to a see a half-full glass. Ralph took us into the building the church had purchased as a learning center from a woman who initially had planned to sell it to one of the local drug dealers. It had plywood over some of the windows and bullet holes through the plywood, but Ralph proudly showed the peeling felt pool tables, old foosball games, and old, scarred desks. Here was hope that went beyond material.

Bethel was making do in other ways as well. In front of the sanctuary medical students volunteer to give free blood pressure, diabetes, and HIV tests. When a baby in Coz's arms cried, he mentioned that he was taking care of Ralph's niece for six months because, as he put it delicately, "her mom's away." (She was in prison.)

Maybe the key is what Joel van Dyke, Bethel's co-pastor, said in a sermon this past summer. Too many people, he told 80 congregants in old wood pews, think that freedom means being able to do whatever you want to do. "But how many of you," he asked, "know the thrill of being a tool in the hands of God to redeem another human life?"

How many lives will Philadelphia's Oct. 16 Music Day, or speechifying at the United Nations, redeem?