Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Devastating debt

Tom and Keith-Tom is the older gentleman

Deciding on dinner when I’m out of town and alone can be tough. I get tired of fast food, and sitting alone in a sit-down restaurant is not my style. Once, while in Denver with my family, we all went to Casa Bonita, a restaurant full of interesting scenery and a big waterfall that performers dive into while patrons eat. I drove over to the restaurant, thinking I might go again, but I couldn’t bring myself to walk in alone. I begin walking down the street.

Colfax Street was likely at one time a nice road, but now it’s rundown and flanked with smoke shops, pawnshops, and tattoo and massage parlors. A few blocks down, Walmart has built up a very nice shopping center with a dry riverbed and bridge, set back a little from the road.
This is clearly a popular place for the homeless to gather. I approach two men and start a conversation. Keith came from Pennsylvania (an interview from earlier)

Tom is older and has been in Denver since 1985. He grew up in Helena, Montana, the youngest of 8 kids. He has lost track of all of his siblings. He heard that one of his brothers, who had been a Catholic Priest in San Francisco, had died of AIDS, but he didn’t find out about it until several years later.

In 1978, Tom graduated from high school and worked in Helena for 7 years. Then in 1985, he decided to come out to Denver for an ACDC concert. He never went back. “I loved the weather, the mountains, and the atmosphere, so I decided to stay. Shortly after that, I fell in love, got married, and had a daughter.”

“What did you do for a living?”

“Heating and cooling mechanic. I even went to school at Metro Tech for drafting, but that didn’t work out.”

“You ever see your kid?”

“I haven’t seen my daughter in 5 years. She’s 30 now and lives in Denver, or at least she did last time I saw her. See, when she was 8, I came home from work one day, and everything was gone—my wife, my daughter, and the furniture. I took 3 weeks off work to look for them. Turns out she had run off with her ex-husband. She took my daughter, and her stepdad raised her as her father. She even took his name.”

Tom is surprisingly void of emotion as he tells this tragic story. He shows no bitterness towards his ex-wife or this man who replaced him in his family. It is not clear if time has healed his wounds or if he really feels this was best situation for his daughter anyway.

I’d seen such family breakups be the catalyst for homelessness, so I ask, “Is that when you became homeless?”

“No, I went back to work and did okay for another 10 years or so. Shortly after my wife left, in 1991, I bought a home. It was a nice 3-bed, 2-bath home, and the payment was only $450. But I took out several home equity loans, and my payment became over $900, so I sold it so it wouldn’t get foreclosed on. That is when I found myself on the streets.”

We talked for over an hour as we ate a sandwich from Jimmy John’s. Keith and Tom told me how they avoided downtown because of crime, how they remove “no smoking” signs at bus stops, and how it’s only safe to gather in groups of less than 4 and not on the Wal-Mart side of the channel.
Homelessness is almost never to be blamed on a single cause it’s usually multi-faceted a broken home, addiction, mental illness, adventure, etc. But sometimes you can see a primary cause, and for Tom, it was debt. As Tom spoke, I could see and how crushing debt can be, and I felt deeply grateful for my parents and church leaders who regularly spoke out about the negative impact of debt.

His story also led me to ask myself, Do we make getting debt too easy? Do we do enough to discourage debt? Would the financial advisers call the loans Tom had taken out and that eventually put him on the streets, ‘good debt’?

As noted above, choosing where to eat when out of town can be difficult. If I had chosen to eat alone, I could have had a much nicer meal for what I spent that night, but I am certain it wouldn’t have been nearly as enjoyable or satisfying.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Fasting...weird

Lately, my mind has pondered a lot about my youth, and how lucky I am, given how stupid I was, to be where I am today.  There have been many points that are making this more and more obvious but the reason I bring this up today, is fasting.

I wrote a little about fasting and how it relates to helping those in Harvy and Irma in my article in the Boulder City Review (see here). But I recall how stupid I used to think fasting was. No matter how many Sunday school lessons I sat through on it, I just didn't see the point. It just felt like a way to torture myself by not eating. And given that the only reason I did it was that my sister, Ta, watched me like a hawk, that was likely all I was doing. Frankly, I could see why some people just think its weird.

The more I age, the more I am impressed with how wise occasional fasting is.

The world is full of good men who spread misery or fail to meet their potential because they cannot do the good they want to do. Why? Because they cannot let go of their own physical needs. They degrade women and break the hearts of their wives to gratify sexual passions. They leave their own children destitute because the drink has more pull on them than a job. They steal from their fellow man, due to the desperate need to get the next high. Even those without such obvious failings can be guilty of allow passions to rob them. We wake up but can hardly think until we have had a coffee, or energy drink. We go to work but by 9 o'clock spend more time thinking about what we will eat for lunch than what we are working on.

While these minor personal addictions may not be so great as to cause us to destroy our family, does our focus on our own needs limit our ability to help others? Can we really be open to figuring out what we can do for others when we are worried about our next drink, cigarette, meal, sexual encounter, etc?

Men become great by learning to sacrifice their immediate desires in pursuit of something better. And at it's core that is exactly what fasting and fast offerings can teach us. It is meant to give us power to find and focus on goals and pursuits that are bigger than us. It is to learn to be able to set aside our own desires, even our most basic needs, when called upon to be able to open our mind and hearts to others. It to teach us that no carnal appetite should be so strong as to distract us from celestial objectives.

Isaiah 58:6-11

Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him...Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the Lord shall be thy reward. Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am...And the Lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water whose waters fail not.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Singing Through Life

The boy belted "I Am a Child of God" out with enthusiasm. When it came to singing, he did not have much talent but he did have desire. The chorister was a very talented chorister for such an inexperienced choir. Indeed, "overqualified" was an understatement in every way. She was skilled in music, a natural leader and exceptional teacher, so her spending her time teaching young kids who had little hope of becoming great, may have appeared to be a waste of talent. Why didn't the church have her oversee a large adult class or choir, or serve in a "more important" leadership calling? Such would have been far more fitting. But she had been asked to lead the off key youth, so that is what she did. And even with his lack of skill, she was willing to work with desire. She asked the boy if he would like to prepare for a solo. She and her equally skilled accompanist met on Saturday's and weeknights to help him improve his voice. In a short time he was performing solos for the little congregation. Was he great? No. But he was improving.

The work was not easy. They worked with him often and continued to lead the young choir. Now this is the exciting part. Can you guess what happened? The children performed in a choir that put the Von Trapps to shame? The young boy grew up to perform in the Met? Top the music charts? No, nothing so exceptional. Rather he grew with music being a significant part of his life that he shares with his wife, children and local congregation.

I love music. I play the piano on occasion for church, love to sing in choirs and, on occasion, still sing a solo at church. Joye Cummings was not the only influence in my life that pushed me towards music. No doubt, my parents who forced me, against my will, to play the piano (which I am exceptionally grateful for) deserve some of the credit. But as I attended Sister Cummings funeral this Summer, it struck me how much of a positive impact she had on my life. Music and the few abilities I have with singing and other instruments have greatly enriched me.

Joye Cummings, my primary chorister, passed away on July 22, 2017


Most of us who coach little league won't ever coach the next Bo Jackson. But we will coach many, perhaps hundreds of kids whose lives will be enriched by what we teach them. I am exceptionally blessed because of the volunteers in my life. That is why I wrote the article that was published in the Boulder City Review today (click here to read it). So while it may be a bit of a fluff piece, I truly am grateful for all those in any community, but especially here in Boulder City, who give so much time and effort to making our lives and community more enriched.