Cornerstone: Birmingham Blues and Hyperopic Humanitarianism

For many of us, myself included, the brokenness within the borders of our own country, our own cities and zip codes, goes unnoticed. Not that hyperopic humanitarianism is anything new. People have been bemoaning the evils in the wild jungles and deserts of Africa and the perhaps wilder metropolises of Asia for hundreds of years, while often failing to see the full extent of the injustices on their own street corner – or rather, perhaps, on the street corners in the dicey neighborhoods and projects of Anytown, USA; pushed back, Verdun-like, further and further to the fringes, out of sight, and out of mind.

It’s one of those problems we all know is there, but don’t grasp just how much is going down in our own backyard.

In his recent article in The Rolling Stone, ”Apocalypse New Jersey,” journalist Matt Taibbi writes:

“Camden is just across the Delaware River from the brick and polished cobblestone streets of downtown Philadelphia, where oblivious tourists pour in every year, gobbling cheese steaks and gazing at the Liberty Bell, having no idea that they’re a short walk over the Ben Franklin Bridge from a full-blown sovereignty crisis – an un-Fantasy Island of extreme poverty and violence where the police just a few years ago essentially surrendered a city of 77,000… It’s a major metropolitan area run by armed teenagers with no access to jobs or healthy food, and not long ago, while the rest of America was ranting about debt ceilings and Obamacares, Camden quietly got pushed off the map…. Over three years, fires raged, violent crime spiked and the murder rate soared so high that on a per-capita basis, it ‘put us somewhere between Honduras and Somalia,’ says Police Chief J. Scott Thomson…. All over America, communities are failing. Once-mighty Rust Belt capitals that made steel or cars are now wastelands.”[1]

It’s not just Camden. Some friends of mine work in a Bible-study/outreach ministry in south Jackson, Mississippi. Teen pregnancy, drug use and dealing, dropping out of school, and a general fatalism of life are common threads. Over the last few months I’ve been told that they’ve had a kid shot every week – either one of their own or someone known by their kids. It’s a warzone out there.

Another friend, involved in a ministry in Chattanooga, told me how, some time ago, some local community development experts had gone around to low income neighborhoods and asked people: “What do you want to change in your community?” One girl answered: “I just wish I wouldn’t get raped so much.”

Inner city inequalities, education, crime and justice came on my radar more than usual over the last month or so, when I took on a freelance assignment chronicling the 20-year history of a school in inner city Birmingham. I listened and collected the stories of the courageous and driven men and women who had been instrumental in founding the school, and turned them into polished articles. Their stories were inspiring and, frankly, heartbreaking at times. I know I only scratched the surface, but it’s good to hear of an organization gaining some real headway in inner city ministry and education.

Building from the foundation of a pre-existing after-school care and tutoring ministry called El Shaddai, Cornerstone Schools was started in downtown Birmingham in 1993 with the mission of renewing the neighborhoods of a crumbling city. The inner city carried the weight of a dark history of racism and bombed churches, and cracked at the seams by a seemingly endless cycle of pervasive poverty, violence, drugs, and gangs. I listened to the stories of drive-by shootings, households with no father-figure in sight, and a 12-year-old kid trying to succeed scholastically who was beaten up by a group of baseball bat wielding teens hired by the boy’s aunt, angry because, in her words: “You can’t be better than us.”

Spearheading Cornerstone’s efforts was Molton Williams, a successful Birmingham businessman who had developed a passion for transforming the inner city through his experiences in prison ministry. Williams, along with other community and business leaders, looked to intervene in the seemingly endless cycle of poverty, crime, and brokenness deeply rooted in the city and its history. The best way to end this cycle, determined Williams, was through education – reaching kids while they were young.

In 1993, El Shaddai officially became Cornerstone Schools of Alabama and started up their elementary classes with K-3rd grade in the El Shaddai ministry center. Within three years, Cornerstone had shifted completely over a property in the Woodlawn area of Birmingham, renting a building from a local Methodist Church on a dollar per year lease for 99 years.

“That’s Bull Connor’s old church,” laughs Board Member Bill Hart. “Bull Connor was the one that called the fire hoses and dogs out on the protestors, that’s the irony. We laugh and say: ‘The very people you hated are having their lives changed by this church.’”

The years that followed had plenty of bumps, but Cornerstone has grown from 15 students in the very first class at El Shaddai to nearly 300 hundred students, from an after-school tutoring center to a top notch center for inner city education, Christ-centered character development and transformation.

“We’ve become, I think, probably the best private school within the city limits of Birmingham,” says Nabers. “We created a school to give an excellent primary education to kids, and that’s what we do. I want us to be a light on a hill, an example to the community that – Yes. Inner city education is possible. And you can give a really good education to really poor people, at a very low cost compared to public education. “

Neighborhoods and communities in Birmingham (and elsewhere I’m sure) are seeing real, redemptive change. It’s not just Cornerstone of course. A few of the struggling parts of town have seen a huge influx of ministries and community leaders actively looking to take back their neighborhoods, but it’s all made a difference and shown that such a thing is in fact possible.

In Camden, Jackson, Birmingham, and Chattanooga, bullets fly and lives break and fatalism sets in cyclically and exponentially far more than we would like to admit to ourselves. This is America, after all. We’ve got it together. We’d like to think that the real gritty stuff only happens to either bad people in dark alleys or in the far frontiers of continents more ancient than our own. I have no magical prescription for “fixing” things, but the answer is not to hole ourselves up in suburbs and church walls and grumble between bites of raspberry-nutella muffin that “the neighborhood is going to hell,” but rather to look for ways to learn what’s going on in our own town and then to engage. Schools like Cornerstone give us an example of one way that can be done, and its a privilege to tell stories like theirs.


Book Review – “Taken: Exposing Sex Trafficking and Slavery in India” by Hazel Thompson


Last week I read through the iBook Taken: Exposing Sex Trafficking and Slavery in India by British photojournalist Hazel Thompson. The book, Thompson’s self-proclaimed life’s work, is the product of 11 years of in and out exposure the world of the sex trade, human trafficking, and modern day slavery in Mumbai’s notorious Kamathipura red light district. Thompson at one point lived in Kamathipura for 6 months, and posed undercover as an aid worker in order to gain access to brothels to take footage and gather stories.

Thompson does well tracing the history of prostitution in India at large, and Mumbai in particular, and gives the reader a fairly solid grasp of the scope of the problem, the depths of the corruption involved, as well as the stories of the individuals who get caught up in it all.

The really exciting thing (to an outside-the-box storytelling entrepreneur like myself anyhow) is that Thompson not only paints a picture with words and photos (a good baseline for advocacy journalism), she communicates with a real multimedia methodology. At the push of a button, British-accented narrators read aloud the stories of children kidnapped into sexual slavery. Interactive maps take aerial photos of the seemingly innocuous-looking red light district and allow the reader to click on a roof here or a street corner there to zoom in on snapshots of children being pushed through hidden trapdoors on brothel roofs to hide from police raids, pimps advertising their women at taxi ranks, used condoms tossed from barred windows of crumbling houses on 14th street – and a running soundrack plays recorded sounds of the streets to lend some chaotic realism of shouts and honking cars. Turn a few more pages and a mini-documentary takes you through the life of Guddi, a career prostitute, then profiles of rescue for four more girls.

Video, photography, text, narration, music, sounds of the streets, and interactive maps make the whole iBook much more of an experience than a read to slog through. It’s not perfect, and I still think that writing on human trafficking, or any kind of advocacy, needs some changes to really engage an audience – but it’s one of the better, and certainly the most creative example I’ve seen yet. Well worth checking out.

Check out Taken and Hazel Thompson’s Website

New Global Slavery Index

Economist Slavery Index

“Nearly 30M people live as slaves around the world…. Almost half of these are in India.”[1]

So says this week’s “International” section of the Economist, which rolled out 243 words heralding the advent of the first Global Slavery Index. The index, conducted by the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation, reported that ¾ of the world’s slaves are concentrated in 10 countries, part and parcel of a global market generating $32billion dollars per year. India, with 14M slaves, came out with the highest numbers, while Mauritania accounted for the worst overall situation, with 4% of their total population in some form of enslavement. [2]

This count of 30M is, obviously, higher than the 27M slaves worldwide typically cited by justice groups. The short answer to this discrepancy is that running indices and numbers for such statistics is made difficult by the inherently underground and unsavory nature of the trade in human lives, and further muddied by varying definitions of, essentially, what counts as slavery.

This index, for example, includes forced labor, sex trafficking, debt bondage, and (not always counted) children forced into marriage and mentally ill individuals being tricked or coerced into construction labor in Europe. Naturally, differing definitions of slavery, especially where culture collides with internationally accepted human rights, cause some to cry foul. One commenter on the Economist article’s webpage, for example, wrote: “This is crap…. not only the study results, but the definition of slavery.”[3]

Culture and perception, it seems, are not as neutral as we sometimes like to think. For issues like human rights and definitions of slavery, there comes a time and a place where lines in the sand need to drawn that transcend the-way-things-have-always-been-done-here mentalities.

The long and short of it is that this number is staggering and, while the problem is global, clear hotspots of injustice emerge. Individuals, consumers, lawmakers, and NGOs need to step up to the plate and not ignore this one, lest the numbers rise.

More than that, while seeing that kind of data is important to realize the scope of the situation at hand (and is simply the sort of work that a newpaper like the Economist deals with), we need to remember the individual lives that lie behind that data. Numbers and indices tell us the heft and gravity of the tragedy and injustice, but the numbers and indices are not the stories or the lives or the injustices themselves. We would do well to see the lives behind the numbers.


Check out Walk Free’s interactive Global Slavery Index map HERE.

In Which Andrew Writes Honestly About Support Raising

This week I head to Virginia for a fund raising trip. As usual, this is both exciting and daunting. I get incredibly excited and love having the chance to talk to people about India and Kolkata, about human trafficking and the efforts to counter it, about what God says about justice and love put into action, about the church and the individual Christian’s place in facing the evil in the world with a hope rooted in joy, and sharing the freedom and joy and hope with those who are in both physical and spiritual chains. When I talk to people who engage in the story, who are genuinely interested (whether or not they end up as supporters), and who ask questions, give opinions, and tell their own stories – it becomes fun and meaningful.

But, on these support trips, there are always some awkward, discouraging conversations that happen too – well meaning individuals who ask about India, listen politely, but through the entire conversation wear a plastered-on expression that says: “Please don’t ask me for my money.” It’s disheartening to actively watch someone lose interest in a cause that I’m so passionate about – missing the point because they’re hearing a sales pitch rather than a story.

Can something that’s so real to me really just blend into the noise for others? I’ve walked the streets and felt the darkness, heard the stories of prostitutes and freedom fighters and developed a passion for telling those stories to the world – and I want people to hear and engage and care. But I wonder whether this blurs into the bombard of other appeals. When I describe the crumbling beauty of Kolkata and the realities of a life lost to the alleyway pimps and the cutthroat traffickers, how often are those histories and those lives filed away in the same category as canned soup drives and Girl Scout cookie sales and NPR pledge week?

Of course, the reality is, I do need to talk about money. Without financial support, I can’t get to Kolkata in the first place. But I wonder whether, stripped of the request-for-support aspect of these conversations, they would more often become actual conversations and stories to be heard and discussed, if the tears and the rage and the questions would come more readily.

This week, one supporter invited me over to a home brew session. I love that. Just hanging out, making beer, and talking about the world and its beauties and evils and joys. Doing life.

The intersection of real stories with real life is where genuine engagement with the world’s need happens.

Resolve, not Resignation

Resolve, not resignation, is a pre-requisite for change.

Yesterday economist Jeffery Sachs, senior UN advisor, columnist, and author of The End of Poverty, ran an article in the NY Times entitled “The End of Poverty, Soon.” Now Sachs is a realist, more firmly aware than most of the monumental challenges, complex economic webs, and poverty traps that keep many countries and large segments of the global population systemically trapped in poverty. But his is a refreshing voice of optimism in a sea of voices crying futility in the fight against poverty, hunger, and injustice.

Ending extreme poverty, Sachs argues, is possible (not guaranteed) within our generation if global powers, private market forces, and individuals all set their resolve, policies, and hearts on the goal. The World Bank Development Committee’s goal of ending extreme global poverty by 2030, and the UN’s stated goal of “eradicating global poverty in a generation” are examples of high-level steps in the right direction.

Economic growth in a market economy, major infrastructure investment (take note South Sudan), and private financing, the rapid dispersion of mass communication (smart phones taking root everywhere you look), new medical breakthroughs, and more effective combatting of malaria, have all been key gains in turning the tide of poverty on a global scale. The emphasis here is on the need for both the public and private sectors to align. In one of Sachs’ most interesting lines, he writes: “One can say that the fight to end poverty is helping to forge a new kind of mixed capitalism.”

Sachs cites World Bank data showing the number of households in developing countries below the extreme-poverty line has been steadily on the decline since the 1980s, as has the infant mortality rate in Africa, as evidence that progress towards ending poverty can be and is being made and that such an end is possible. Real dents can be made in problems on a global scale.

This sort of optimistic realism, big dreams tempered by a complex understanding of international economics, is good to hear. Combined resolution and efforts by governments, large-scale private investment, and small-scale individual efforts and grassroots development or business have actual efficacy to change lives, increase standards of living, and fight poverty.

Poverty matters in the world of justice and human trafficking as well. Many of the girls trapped in the sex trade are there in the first place as a direct result of their poverty. Starving families with few options sell off daughters or nieces to traffickers who in turn sell them to brothels for sexual exploitation. Young women from rural villages with no employment alternatives are promised good jobs in the big city where they can send money back to their impoverished families, but then end up trapped in a life of forced prostitution. Then there’s the matters of power – these injustices happen to the poor, precisely because the poor all to often have no defense, no one to turn to and no resources to draw from. Thus, economic development and combatting poverty at a grassroots level, from the villages to the cities, actually plays a major role in the prevention of human trafficking.

Of course, there’s always more layers to muddy the waters. In his article “Sexploitation: the Economics of Sexual Exploitation and Human Trafficking,” Dr. Mark Russell writes: “…economic progress can sometime lead to greater human destruction, not less.”

Russell notes that the increase in ultrasound machines throughout India (coinciding with widespread poverty reduction) simultaneously resulted in a decrease in previously very high infant mortality rates, and, with the newfound ability to determine a child’s gender before birth, an increase in “gender selected abortion.” Likely in part because of the dowry expenses inherent in having a daughter, male children are greatly preferred – resulting in a rather high (and increasing) male to female ratio in the Indian population. That, according to Russell, means less available Indian women to be wives, and an increased demand for prostitution, leading in turn to an increase in supply via human trafficking.

Russell writes: “The situation in India demonstrates why wealth creation must always be accompanied by a broader understanding of ethics and human rights. In India what should have helped more baby girls survive has actually led to their destruction in many cases. Wealth and technology have not changed unbiblical attitudes towards women in India or anywhere else.”

That doesn’t mean we should turn our backs on India, or on economic development in general. On the contrary, as mentioned above, development and turning the tide of poverty is a means of empowerment that is one of the most effective ways to fight human trafficking from the source.

It does mean that we ought to be informed about the complexities and potential consequences of economic development, and that we ought to be prepared to try and address poverty and injustices holistically – and that includes cultural implications. It also means that efforts specifically aimed at fighting human trafficking through empowering women economically and socially (like bakeries and factories employing women trapped in the sex trade), are particularly important in addressing systemic injustice on multiple fronts.

If Sachs is right, then the campaign taglines that you and I often dismiss as unachievable, naïve dreams – End Poverty. End Hunger. End Slavery. – while often oversimplified and cliche, are not to be laughed at. They’re subjects for study, concerted, multidimensional effort, and a healthy dose of passion.

I don’t know that we’ll see the end of poverty, or hunger, or slavery, in this generation. But I’d rather see people fighting those battles than dismissing them as unrealistic.

So, Homework: go read The End of Poverty by Sachs, The Bottom Billion by Collier, and all of the Economist, and then buy me a beer and we’ll have a good, long discussion about the economics of poverty and injustice. Aaaaaaand, Go.

Outside the Box

In the last week or so, I’ve been playing TED talks in the background while I work. They’re amazing. For serious though. These speakers, some of the top in their respective fields, from movie screenwriters to photojournalists, novelists to spoken word poets, have thought hard and articulated well the backbone of What Makes a Good Story and the Importance of Stories. Plus, I’ve had a number of great coffee shop conversations about writing and experimenting with mixed media for a more meaningful, interactive experience with the reader. The result? I’m really excited about creative and meaningful storytelling.

For example, there’s the hard-hitting war journalism of Janine di Giovanni, and the justice-driven photography of global slavery by Lisa Kristine, bearing witness to modern slavery worldwide. These courageous journalists travel to some of the diciest and dustiest places on the globe to tell the stories that all too often forgotten.

In her 2012 TED Talk, “What I Saw in the War,” Giovanni says:

“All I am is a witness. My role is to bring a voice to people who are voiceless [and] to shine a light in the darkest corners of the world.”

Then there’s Andrew Stanton, creator of Toy Story, WALL-E, and perhaps my favorite TED Talk to date. At one point, Stanton says:

“That’s what I think the magic ingredient is, the secret sauce. It’s: “Can you invoke wonder?”… For me there’s no greater gift than the ability of another human being to give you that feeling. To hold them still just for a brief moment in their day and surrender to wonder. When it’s tapped the affirmation of being alive reaches you almost at a cellular level. And when an artist does that to another artist, it’s like you’re compelled to pass it on. It’s like a dormant command that’s suddenly activated in you, like a call to devil’s tower: “Do unto others what’s been done to you.” The best stories infuse wonder.”

I’ll sometimes find myself lapsing into soulless, newswriter prose – devoid of adjectives or structure or rhythm, the feeling of being there and seeing it noticeably absent. Just declarative sentences. Just the facts ma’am.

Then I’ll go see a movie where I sit in shocked silence as the credits roll, do a double take at a photograph, read a novel or a poem that just sticks, the kind where not just the content, but the architecture and arrangement of the words on the page just won’t leave until I’ve gone and created something of my own.

Or when people give a glimpse behind the curtain, like in these TED Talks. They get my mind whirring at high speed and moving 18 directions at once. They remind me that stories demand to be told and heard and read and experienced in different ways – and that reminds me that I get to be creative, to experiment, to try things and watch what crashes and burns and what people connect with. I get to try and capture the world, show people what’s here and what could be here and why they should care. And that’s something else. That’s where the fun of it collides with purpose.

If life, even a life far different from one’s own, can be captured in a way that makes the audience pause for a moment rather than just dismiss the subject as one more in the unending barrage of daily media. If the audience can, just for a moment, swim with the author through the swelteringly humid air and smog of Kalighat, taste the spice of the curry, hear the roar of the subway and the cacophony of languages, then that world becomes a part of their own experience. If, just for a moment, the audience can understand the tears, the fatalistic desolation, of a Bengali woman who has been trapped in forced prostitution since she was 11 years old; if they can look and see the foggy brown of her eyes, feel the rough edges of the cement walls of the tiny room she calls home, peer under the bed where her tiny daughter hides when her mother sees clients on a creaking mattress inches above her, then that story becomes part of their story.

I don’t entirely know what this all looks like yet – but the gears in my mind are turning. Here’s to thinking outside the box.

Flying Lessons

“Flying Lesson” by Julia Kasdorf

“Over a tray of spent plates, I confessed

to the college president my plans to go East,

to New York, which I’d not really seen,

though it seemed the right place

for a sophomore as sullen and restless

as I had become on that merciless

Midwestern plain. He slowly stroked

a thick cup and described the nights

when, a theology teacher in Boston, he’d fly

a tiny plane alone out over the ocean,

each time pressing farther into the dark

until the last moment, when he’d turn

toward the coast’s bright spine, how he loved

the way the city glittered beneath him

as he glided gracefully toward it,

engine gasping, fuel needle dead on empty,

the way sweat dampened the back of his neck

when he climbed from the cockpit, giddy.

Buttoned up in my cardigan, young, willing

to lose everything, how could I see generosity

or warning? But now that I’m out here,

his advice comes so clear: fling yourself

farther, and a bit farther each time,

but darling, don’t drop.


I love that poem. Always have.  It strikes a chords in so many ways – the restless student itching to push out of the “merciless” everyday; the description of the “coast’s bright spine” and the glittering city lights; the thrill of the gasping engine edging towards too-late; and most of all, the image, or the idea rather, of the tiny plane “flinging itself” farther and farther over the ocean and into the dark unknown.

The dog days of August are packed. Trying to raise support to get to India – envelopes and awkward phone calls and emails; visits to cities and lunch meetings.  I love to talk and write about justice, human trafficking, India – can do it for hours – but I hate to ask for money. Or ask for anything. I want to do everything on my own, and my pride inevitably comes back around. Trying to balance support raising with life, the reality of not being able to work a paid job full time hitting the reality that groceries and gas cost money.

Freelance writing to pay the bills. In an irony not lost on me, I hit a terrible bout of writer’s block while trying to knock out an article on brain health.

Relationships, church Bible studies, weddings, research, the balance of working with my hands to repair a motorcycle, pounding out miles on mountain trails, seeing and wanting to speak truth to the lives I’m wrapped up in here, carving callousing into my fingers from hours of climbing, pacing out the search for the words to type, fueling the writing and the long hours with French presses of coffee until my hands shake.

And stories. Always stories – the rags to riches tale of an American puppeteer turned Florence and Vatican trained sculptor; programmers solving puzzles; refugees in Western Uganda; a Marine taking mortar fire in Iraq; the air force pilot, wrapped up in silver wings and roaring engines, who tried hang gliding and found the silence so deafening that he could finally hear God.

Stories in Kolkata that I want to hear and tell. That whole bit in Prov. 31:8-9 about opening your mouth for the destitute and defending the rights of the poor and needy.

Stuffing envelopes and drafting case statements is not my element. In some ways it’s harder than being in the field – I feel more at home in Africa and India. The comfortable has become uncomfortable. But, this bit of the journey is also a kind of uncharted territory, a risk and a shot in the dark.

On the bush planes in Africa, taking off from the red-dirt airstrip was my favorite part – building speed and defying gravity and rocketing off into the big African sky.

India looms ahead like the ocean and the dark unknown in that poem – huge and terrifying and thrilling. And like that pilot I want to “press farther into the dark,” fling myself farther and farther into the mix. But I have to keep reminding myself that “flying” takes “flying lessons” – and that’s part of what this stateside season is about – lessons.

And good coffee. It’s also about good coffee.  And probably rockclimbing.