We Have Heard. Now, Let Us Act

Photos by Pilar Timpane

I’m glad to live in Durham, NC.

Yes, we have our problems, like all places. But this is a place where folks are willing to take responsibility for our community–to come together and do the hard work of becoming the city we all want to be.

Last night, we had our first public meeting on Durham’s new anti-panhandling ordinance. Mel Williams of End Poverty Durham greeted the 200 people who crowded into Duke Memorial UMC’s fellowship hall by saying that we evaluate every public policy by one question: how does it affect the poorest among us?

If we are to know, we must listen to them. So we did.

One after another, men who have been ticketed for begging told their stories. Steve told about how, as he was standing on an exit ramp with a sign that said “Will Work,” his old boss saw him and picked him up last month. Now he has regular work and is able to pay the rent. But he came to speak for his friend Keith who just learned that he has cancer and is no longer able to ask for help because it’s illegal. Steve stood to speak for people like Keith who’ve been pushed further into the shadows.

Country shared his story. He told how he started priming tobacco when he was nine years old–how he worked hard every day for fourty-one years before he was injured in a construction accident. On disability now, he gets medical care and a $710 check each month. But when his bills are paid, he’s already five dollars behind. For years, friends in Durham have stopped by Country’s corner and helped him make ends meet. But he got a ticket last week for talking through a car window to someone he’s known for years.

These are the stories that have convinced us that this new law is wrong. They are stories that make us ask, “How could a law like this have come to be?”

Some of us have spent Lent asking this question. When we asked the guys on the streets who’ve been getting tickets, they said, “Nobody asked us before the law was passed.” When we asked folks around town who run our homelessness services, they all said no one had asked them. So we talked to the Homelessness Services Advisory Council–the city/county group that exists to advise City Council on issues that affect the homeless. And they told us no one had asked them either.

How could a law like this have come to be? I think the answer is simple. Durham had not heard these stories.

But now we have. And since we have heard, we have a responsibility to act.

I’m grateful to the City Council members who had the courage to come and listen last night: Cora Cole-McFadden, Steve Schewel, and Don Moffitt. Speaking on behalf of his colleagues, Steve said, “You may be right.” I’m grateful for his humility.

But we as a community cannot rest until we are able to say together, “This law is wrong. It can be changed and it should be changed.” I know Council can do this. But they cannot do it without our help.

So we must move from listening to action. We must take our message to the streets.

As a Christian, I can’t imagine a better time than Holy Week to go to our city’s streets with the good news that a better way is coming–and that we can greet it together. So after we welcome Jesus to Jerusalem with Palm Branches this Sunday, we will gather at the intersection of 15/501 and Mt. Moriah Rd. on Monday at 5pm to stand together against this anti-panhandling ordinance.

A group of local ministers announced today that they will publicly violate the ordinance in an act of spiritual solidarity as the community prays and bears witness to a better way on the road side.

Please join us in working to become the beloved community where all God’s children are welcome and celebrated.

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