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An open letter to David Fox

August 31, 2015

Dear David,

As I’m sure you know, I’ve been struggling over the past weeks about who I will be voting for in the mayoral election. I found myself flirting with the notion of voting for someone who is certainly more conservative than I. I was intrigued but what you had to offer, believing that you were a person who represented a more thoughtful and graceful form of conservatism. I believed that your personal faith perspective influenced your approach to politics, given your repeated assertions of a “live and let live” policy. You offered valuable and valid critiques of where we find ourselves as a city, and I began to believe that you were committed to engaging in substantive conversation over the challenges we face as a city.

And then you and your supporters decided to bring religion into the race.

Understand, I am a person of faith. I believe that our faith perspectives color our values. As a person in the Judeo-Christian stream, I recognize the sacred worth of all as persons created in the image of God, and my belief in that worth and value is what colors my political decision-making. Hopefully, but not always, our faith reflects the things that we hold near and dear to us. It can be a valuable part of the conversation.

But faith is not a weapon of attack. It is not a club to be used to pummel someone into submission, nor a weapon of mass destruction to besmirch the reputation of the other. To attack a person for their faith (or lack of it) is to ignore their identity as people deserving of God’s grace; to objectify them as objects of derision rather humans seeking fulfillment; and to demonize them in pursuit of winning at all costs. Even worse, to attack someone for their spouse’s or family’s belief is to paint with a broad brush which says that the “take no prisoners” approach to politics is alive and well in your campaign . I simply cannot support that.

I chose to believe that the backhanded rumors that Megan was an atheist were outside your campaign . . . dirty tricks by people dedicated to getting you elected at all costs. However, as I hear the new radio ads, I have to believe that the desire to win has infected your campaign to the point where you’ve given into the tactics of fear and hatred — tools that have unfortunately been a part of the toolbox of many of your colleagues. I honestly thought that you might actually be above all that, but as I’ve read more and more that belief has been eroded.

Look, I understand that you aren’t the only one throwing underhanded accusations at the other. Neither of you is particularly pure in this race, and frankly the whole thing has sickened me to the point where I simply want to walk the other way.

But when you attack someone’s faith perspective, you are going a little deeper in my opinion. You are attacking their humanity, a place of vulnerability which must be off-limits in a political campaign in a secular society. You can question her policies all day long, but you cannot attack her as a human being without risking the ire of this writer.

You may think it worth the risk, that gaining control of the city justifies the use of any tactic to win. You may believe that a Barry administration will destroy this city and think that gives you the moral imperative to attack on all fronts.

You may think it, but I fear that in doing so you, and the entire city of Nashville, loses our heart and our soul.

If my own faith teaches me anything it is that the process is as important as the outcome.

Given what I’ve seen of your process over the past several weeks, I don’t think I can give you my vote.

My hope and prayer is that you and Megan can find a way forward in the next few days that might find a place of grace and understanding rather than attack and division. I know that’s likely an idealistic dream, but a guy has to have hope.




So what’s this train thing anyway? Some final reflections on the mayor’s race.

August 25, 2015


Last week I took some time to unpack some of my feelings about the Nashville mayor’s race, suggesting that I was nervous about jumping on the train for either Megan Barry or David Fox. Of course some might ask what is the whole purpose of sharing this anyway? After all, since I don’t seem to like either of the candidates why bother with even voting? Isn’t the whole exercise futile anyway . . . politics is what it is, and why bother even worrying about it?

I get that, and there are moments when I want to wash my hands of the entire affair. That has been especially true in the name calling, rumor mongering, and character assassination originating from supporters on both sides of the campaign. I’ve seen intelligent people paint with broad brushes about the supposed evil of the other side in their support for winning over the other. They are passionate people who are convicted in the rightness of their beliefs, but in their assumptions and accusations they deflect from the real questions that need to be answered by both campaigns.

Yes, I’m nervous about the candidates as they appear in their campaign modes, with their platitudes and attacks on the other. However what worries me more are the questions that aren’t neither being asked or answered in the belief that questioning the Dean legacy is a short track toward oblivion.

I sat in a meeting today with community leaders in Madison and the rest of the city to talk about issue of homelessness in our neighborhood. While we heard wonderful stories of faith communities and others offering a variety of services to help and support our homeless neighbors, the conversation turned again and again toward the lack of housing for the poor. While both of the campaigns (and organizations such as NOAH) talk about affordable housing in general terms, they fail to define affordability, the place of MDHA in addressing poverty housing, incentives for landlords to retain or start accepting subsidized housing vouchers (section 8), and the increasing number of persons who are holding vouchers who are unable to find housing. There has been a lot of appeal to the Barnes Housing Trust Fund, something that I support, but not a lot of specifics for how those funds will address housing needs that are reaching crisis levels in some neighborhoods. There has been almost no mention of the success of the How’s Nashville campaign and how to build upon that success to alleviate homelessness.

There is a lot of talk about transit solutions, which is absolutely crucial to our city, but almost no conversation how to make transit affordable for folks at the lower ranges of the economic spectrum (something that is a struggle for many). There is never any critique of the flaws of Dean’s AMP proposal, a proposal which seemed geared to an affluent ridership while ignoring the needs of other communities.

Megan talks about continuing the prosperity of the Dean administration with the current rate of development trusting that developers are not over building and we aren’t creating a housing bubble that will undermine the increased tax revenues which are the hope of those projects. Megan talks about the economic prosperity of the Music City Center project without acknowledging that all the extra taxes collected are directed toward paying the cost of that project and are not directed toward city services. She fails to say if continuing in the Dean legacy means that she will continue his practice of cutting social services funding again, and again, and again.

While Fox talks about austerity in the face of the debt, he likewise fails to address concerns about social services funding. If cuts are coming under Fox, and there certainly will be cuts, are those across the board and if they are applied to social services and safety net entities like Metro General Hospital, how will we be able to sustain those services?

There is posturing on education — but in the end they offer no specific plans for addressing the unique needs of an urban school district in which the common practice for many years has been for affluent citizens to place their children in private schools starting in middle school, or to move to one of the surrounding counties. At what point do we undermine the success of our schools when we spend so much time talking about their deficiencies rather than their assets?

For me the question of who will serve on the leadership teams with the two candidates is important. I respect that no promises have been made, but I want and need to know from Megan if she is comfortable and wanting to retain the current leadership team employed by Mayor Dean, or if she thinks a different approach is called for. I want and need to know from David is folks like Israel Ortega will be the norm for his team, and how that doesn’t represent a move toward the hard right rather than simply right of center?

I want to know from both campaigns if the culture of accusation and attack will be the norms for their campaigns once in office. Will the “take no prisoners” approach of the Dean administration continue or will there be a kinder and gentler approach to leadership?

The problem with the campaigns for me are not the campaigns in themselves.

No, they are in the lack of serious engagement around the serious issues we face.

We aren’t asking the right questions.

And in our failure to do so, we find ourselves backed into the corner of mud slinging which we all hate, but still do.

God help us.


I ain’t necessarily getting on the David train either: More reflections on the Nashville mayoral race of 2015

August 22, 2015


Yesterday I let loose with my worries about Megan Barry’s candidacy for mayor, and the rhetoric that I’ve heard out of her supporters. Apparently I struck I nerve because I’ve heard from a variety of folks, both supporters of Megan and supporters of David Fox, both praising and chastising my post. The feedback has been good, and as I’ve thought more about what I said yesterday, there are a few things I need to clarify.

First, there was one accusation I made about Megan Barry accepting donations from the private corrections company, CCA. I have since been informed that my information was incorrect and that donations were accepted from individual staff members of CCA, nor any sort of corporate donation. I wish to set the record straight that, as I understand it, Megan has refused corporate donations as a matter of principle. Certainly there is nothing wrong with accepting donations from individuals who may work for a company profiting off of policies that you may differ with. My point, however, still stands. Politics as it exists today requires lots of money and no one is completely pure. Attacks from either side about the other side’s donors is an attempt to suggest that a candidate my be beholden to the political positions of those donors. While there may be some truth in that, I fear our cynicism may lead to hyperbolic responses to the effects these donors have on the candidate. As long as big money is part of the system most everyone’s hands are dirty.

Second, there were some who thought that my critique of Megan Barry represented a tacit endorsement of David Fox. This is not the case either. As I said in the post I am nervous about both candidates, and there are concerns I have about David Fox’s candidacy as well. This post is an attempt to address some of those concerns.

Understand that I respect David’s repeated assertions that we have overspent under the previous administration, and that it may be time to tighten the belt. We’ve built some cool buildings and facilities, but we’ve put ourselves in a precarious financial situation. Pro-development types like Mayor Dean, and Megan’s public stance, seem to think that continuing the current policy of growth and development will increase revenues to the point where we can meet our debt load without any problem. I tend to be more cynical, fearing that we are approaching a development bubble. I sat in a meeting last week in which Metro Property Assessor George Rooker showed architects renderings of shiny high-rise upon shiny high-rise, all built in the urban core, and I found myself wondering who are the folks who are actually going to live in those buildings, especially since their rents are hardly affordable. I know what rents are currently going for in the Gulch and I (who makes an acceptable salary) can’t afford to live there. Maybe these will spur new residents to Nashville, but unfortunately our current infrastructure is straining under the weight of our existing residents and adding folks will come with a cost which is rarely structured into the development expenses. Most of all, in the wake of all the spending to develop, I’ve seen services for the poor and marginalized cut, and no energy given to addressing the difficulty folks making under $30,000 have in finding housing. I think it might be time to slow down the rate of development and focus on some of the core needs of our city which aren’t particularly sexy, but very necessary.

However I confess that I worry about David’s approach to dealing with our current financial realities, thinking that the belt-tightening will again come at the expense of the least of these. David’s approach to dealing with affordable housing, that is, to attempt to fund the Barnes Housing Trust through outside donations, seems to a regular mantra of conservatives, but as the leader of a non-profit (albeit a religious one in nature) I can say that it sounds good in theory, but the reality is much harder. I’m a believer in public/private partnerships (were working on some here in Madison right now) but both parties have to have skin in the game, and we cannot fully address the obtainable housing shortage through outside philanthropy in my opinion.

As I said in my previous post, David has always been straight with me one-on-one, and I generally have trusted him along the way. I’m not especially concerned about the PAC established by his brother, although many of my friends think it’s an abomination. However I am concerned with the decision to turn over the management of his campaign to consultants who represent the more extreme ends of the Republican party, as well as the recent move to hire a communications coordinator with deep ties to the Heritage Foundation (Israel Ortega), a group who identifies themselves as an organization “…whose mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.” This is troubling to me because I don’t think it was necessary. David was ALWAYS going to appeal to the more conserving in our city. Given the history of these organizations in the past, it’s easy to imagine a significantly more conservative presence in our city. David has said that his faith leads him to be a moderate on social issues (“live and let live,” he says is his philosophy). However that IS NOT the agenda of the organizations that are providing underlying support to his campaign, and while I don’t want to fall into conspiracy theories, it does make on have to wonder.

Some of that is tied to David’s tenure at the chair of the board of Metro Public Schools. Several times I’ve heard the story of David’s decision to keep his decision to not seek re-election until the very last minute, so that his hand-picked successor would be able to run unopposed. Some would say that was simply good political thinking, and it may be, but it also suggests a willingness to eschew openness and transparency, something which I believe is the cornerstone of good governance. We’ve spent 8 years of an administration which has failed to appreciate that transparency can be an asset rather than a liability, and those past behaviors have to make one think.

However, the bottom line for me with David really isn’t that different from my issues with Megan — an unwillingness to clearly define how their administrations will pivot to a different focus. David will spend less, but his model of a good mayor is the same as Megan’s — Phil Bredesen, the original architect of edifice spending and take no prisoners politics while failing to address the needs of the poor. One of the reasons we struggle today in our relationship between Meharry and Metro General Hospital was due to the dysfunctional arrangement Bredesen established to meet his political needs, and not consider the long-term needs of providing a safety net hospital for those in need. That Mr Fox lifts him up as his model for leadership should make us all pause for a moment.

So my friends, I’m not jumping on the David train without more thought either. I think David has strengths and weaknesses, just as does Megan Barry. Clearly there are those in our city who believe that Megan has the gifts to lead us — just consider the endorsements she’s received, and I have to take those under advisement. There are aspects of David Fox’s approach to governance that I have to take under advisement as well.

The path is not clear, and I may be too late to leave the station. But I’m not buying my ticket until I have a better sense of the path upon which we are headed.

Why I’m not sure I’m jumping on the Megan train: Reflections on the mayoral election of 2015

August 21, 2015

MeganTrain-01Like always, I want to remind folks that anything I say here is my own opinion, and does not in any way represent the official opinion of the United Methodist Church, the congregation I serve, or the company in which I’m a partner. This also does not represent an endorsement of any particular candidate that would put in question the 501c3 status of the church with which I’m associated. 

I haven’t written on this site in a very long while. Frankly, there hasn’t been much to say (although that seems to be ramping up in the coming months). And, I’ve been hesitant to write this post sharing my thoughts and feelings because I know it’s going to seriously tick off some of my progressive friends and colleagues in my unwillingness to succumb to ideology at all costs.

For the past couple of weeks since election day, I have watched with interest the conversation and propaganda spewing forth on the Internet regarding the mayoral election in Nashville, and the run-off between the Megan Barry and David Fox. My friends that identify as liberal/progressive have been quick to suggest that Megan is the only answer, that she represents the true progressive spirit, and that David Fox is a conservative Republican that will take Nashville back into the dark ages. Folks on the other side, of course, counter that Megan is a liberal who is shoving her progressive agenda down the throats of the people of Nashville.

By all indications it’s looking more and more like Megan has the inside track. She was the top vote getter in the run-off, she’s received all the right endorsements, and all of the media outlets are lifting her up in a way that suggests she’ll be the eventual winner. As someone who has been identified in the past as a “progressive/liberal” (whatever that means) I should be quick to jump on the train, cast my vote, and elect the first woman mayor of Nashville (something that is indeed appealing to me).

And yet….

And yet, I’m hesitant, uncertain, troubled, and not totally convinced.

You see I’ve seen this train before. It was the same train that I was told to get on when a candidate named Karl Dean emerged from the pack to be the progressive choice in the move to elect anyone but Clement. I was told at the time that he was supportive of social issues, that as a former public defender he understood the needs of the poor, and that he would be a unifier in our city. And so, I went into the booth and cast my vote for a man who I believe has certainly generated economic activity, but as a means of doing so has gutted our social safety net, enhancing the lifestyle of the wealthy, while condemning those whose “…backs are up against the wall…” (to quote Howard Thurman) to find making ends meet even harder and harder. Yes, Mayor Dean built a lot of cool buildings, and turned SoBro into a hip destination for convention goers, but he also privatized our only safety net nursing home and assisted care facility, both of which are in serious trouble of survival. Dean cut social services spending every year that he was in office, and while he may have presided over the rise of the gulch, he did so by supporting MDHA funding for those projects which identified “affordable housing” at levels that few middle class folks could afford, let alone a woman on disability trying to live on $1,000 a month.

If you like Karl Dean and what he’s done, then Megan Barry is the person for you, for she has been clear that she is committed to the same policies that we’ve seen during the past 8 years.

And there is an earthy image of what will happen to the poor under those policies that I can’t say because I’m a United Methodist pastor and it will get me in trouble.

The meme is that there is a clear difference between Megan and David — that she represents “progressive” voices and that David represents “conservative” ones. But the meme isn’t quite accurate. The fact that BOTH candidates lift of Phil Bredesen — the first incarnation of Karl Dean who had his own edifice complex — is proof of that. While David certainly believes we need to be careful about the debt we’ve incurred, he’s not anti-development. And the supposed progressive (an identity that in the past has been nervous about unchecked development) is the one who is advocating keeping the pedal to the metal and build, build, build.

As an aside, in my own anti-development screed, look at the example of most churches around town. The “if we build it, they will come” model has been pretty well debunked at this point.

Of course, I may just be getting old, cynical, and more conservative with age (in the words of Elizabeth Cady Stanton), but I don’t think so. What I fear is that labels are being applied without a true evaluation of what they mean or how they apply.

There is no doubt that Megan Barry is more of an activist regarding women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and other social issues than David Fox. For many people those are the defining characteristics that will drive folks to vote for her. Unfortunately, a big city mayor really has very little influence around those issues, especially since the non-discrimination ordinance is already passed.

In my mind, one of the primary tasks of a mayor is to balance the competing demands of constituencies in the city. Yes, building up the downtown core and supporting tourism is important to our city. But not at the expense of other communities. People who live in Madison, or Antioch, or The Nation, must be just as important as the director of the Nashville Chamber or folks living in gentrified East Nashville. And, because they are generally underrepresented in the seats of power, special attention needs to be paid to those at the lower ends of the economic spectrum. A mayor’s job, in my opinion, is about creating the climate for a hospitable community . . . and as a person of faith, I would even argue for Martin Luther King’s vision of the beloved community. That plays out in policies that balance economic development with the need for obtainable housing, not creating a heavy tax burden with the needs of infrastructure improvements that benefit ALL segments of our city, and addressing social needs proactively, not reactively.

The mayor, in my opinion, needs to recognize that they are living in a glass bubble most of the time, so they need to seek opinions outside their staff or immediate friendships, and place themselves in places where they can interact with a variety of folks. Ideally, a mayor must know enough about our history and tradition to balance the desire to create something new with the real human need to hold on to those things that have become sacred.

While I have often been identified as more left-wing than right in my own beliefs (sometimes to my detriment in my local church life), I don’t really know what that means anymore. What guides me, and what I thought guided progressive/liberal folks, is a belief in human connection and responsibility, that is, that society DOES have an obligation to care for one another. We are, as MLK said, caught up in a web of mutuality, in which I can never be who I am supposed to be unless you are who you are supposed to be. I, as a person of faith, believe that Jesus was serious when he said we were to love others in the same way that we ourselves want to experience love, and that the whole of scripture is built on the call to love God and love neighbor. And, last but not least, I believe that the only way to maintain the moral high ground is to be above petty name calling and demonization, and speak the truth in love, holding others accountable for their opinions, but also being willing to listen so as to grow and learn.

It’s the latter point that has troubled me the most about this election — the willingness of my “progressive” friends to spew forth accusation without proof, assumptions without data, and to move into attack mode at the expense of love and unity. Very frankly, I have seen a “take no prisoners” attitude before from the Dean administration (just ask Jerry Maynard or Jason Holleman) and it is showing up again in this race from both sides, but more often than not from the Barry camp in my opinion. That attitude is completely at odds with my faith, and I cannot support or endorse it in any way.

Yes, David Fox presided over a turbulent time in the history of the Metro School Board. But before we try to overlay what he said then with what is happening today, remember that we were reeling after a contentious Pedro Garcia administration at MNPS, that the state (under Governor Bredesen’s leadership, if I remember correctly) was threatening to take over the school system, and that we ALL were trying to discern a correct path. Yes, Fox was the named plaintiff in the Spurlock case (as case in which MNPS actually prevailed) but his was one vote among many, including a current African-American Metro Council person. Yes, he is supportive of charter schools . . . but then again so is Megan.

Some suggest that David wants to privatize everything (a notion that he has rejected) and that somehow Megan is against privatization. However Megan was certainly willing to take the money from CCA, a company which is a poster child for privatization, built on the backs of inmates.

Most troubling to me is Megan’s response to me when I asked about her administration if she’s elected. Word on the street is saying that she will retain Greg Highnote and Rich Reibling from the Dean administration on her staff if she’s elected. Highnote and Reibling were the architects of much of Dean’s agenda, and I believe at the core of the “take no prisoners” approach, and I believe it’s time for a change. When asked if Greg and Rich would be on the team her response was “I’ve made no promises to anyone…” which is a far cry from “I’m likely to keep them because I think they have been from the city,” or “No, I think it’s time for a change.”

I like Megan. I’d like to share a beer with her. But there are so many unknowns for me, I don’t know whether I can trust her.

And so far, David Fox has been straight with me. I have no doubt that we disagree on approaches for dealing with our city’s problems, but I feel like he’s been truthful to me. Yes, I know there is the concern about his brother’s PAC and the coordination issue, but do we HAVE to always assume a conspiracy is in the works. Knowing a little bit about family dynamics, isn’t it possible that bro was doing things he thought would help behind the scenes without his brother’s knowledge?

This has been a place of struggle for me over the past couple of weeks. I frankly don’t know who I will vote for, but I’m not willing to jump on a train if I don’t have a sense of where it’s headed . . . and I’m just not at all certain that the Megan train will be anything but more harmful for the poor and marginalized of our city. The Fox administration may not be any better, but there is at least some rhetoric of faith guiding compassion for others that makes me look twice.

Earlier this morning, after a late night Facebook chat about these issue, my friend Sonnye Dixon posted the following on Facebook:

A lesson learned: I have received more blessing from my enemies who wanted to do right than I have from my friends who thought their friendship was enough of a blessing for me.

I’m still trying to discern if David Fox is an political “enemy” who wants to do right.

But I can’t simply write him off because I’m supposed to jump on some sort of “liberal/progressive” train, especially when it’s not clear that in the end it will be headed in a direction consistent with love, justice, and compassion for my friends living on the streets, trying to make ends meet at Madison Towers, or searching for a place for mom to live out her last days when there is no money available.

Prove me wrong.

I’m back!!! And Glen Funk must go…

March 19, 2015

FunkYes, it’s been weeks, centuries, and even years since I’ve written here at JustNashville, but the juices are flowing again, and it’s time to offer my take on issues facing our fair city of Nashville with a dash of faith, a glob of justice, and the belief that communities CAN really come together to do great things.

And what has prompted this sudden infusion of energy? The saga of our recently elected District Attorney, Glenn Funk.

I first came upon Glenn at one of those typical local chamber of commerce gatherings of candidates out here in Old Hickory. Someone introduced us and I remember meeting him, but I didn’t walk away with major thoughts about his personality, character, or even about what he would bring to the table. Later on though, I began to become concerned when I heard career prosecutors bemoaning the possibility of his election, feeling that bad things were in the horizon under a Funk administration (a Funky administration perhaps?) I knew some folks supporting Glenn and they were generally part of the old-time political operative class that runs around out in our neck of the woods, but I knew them and trusted them that Funk couldn’t be THAT bad.

I became worried when Funk was elected and there was a rash of resignations from the DA’s office . . . resignations from folks that had been successful prosecutors and really saw dealing the crime from their end as a calling. Warning bells really went off when Funk arrived and immediately fired other career prosecutors who had served with excellence and were willing to work under Funk’s leadership because of their belief in what they were doing. It was clear that Funk was getting rid of the institutional memory of the organization, something that is sometimes necessary should always be done with forethought and care. In the firings an arrogance began to show, and it was clear that our city had elected a leader with an attitude and an agenda.

Of course, leave it to Phil Williams to pop the cork and let the Genie out of the bottle. Good old Phil opened our eyes to a whole underground system of good old boy back scratching that allowed DA Funk to find some loopholes to line insure his family and boost his pension at the government’s expense. Apparently the $12,000 a month that Funk mad as the DA wasn’t adequate to his lifestyle.

When confronted was Glenn sorry or tried to hide the fact of what he had done?


He admitted it fully, suggesting that he was just taking advantage of certain loopholes in the system to his benefit. Of course, the state DA’s conference apparently thought those loopholes were obscure enough that they fired Glenn’s friend Wally Kirby, the longtime executive director of the DA’s conference, for his part in helping his friend.

Today Funk admitted that the perception probably looks bad, and so he’s agreed to refund the money and give up the pension benefits. Of course he doesn’t admit wrong doing — just that it appears funny and in the interest of keeping the peace he will fall on his sword.

I’m sorry Mr. Funk that isn’t enough.

You see it’s a problem that you are unable to recognize the impropriety of what you’ve done. It demonstrates a dependence on a good old boy ethic of political dealing that is totally inappropriate when the lives of both victims and accused are on the line. For some reason I feel like the top law enforcement agent of our city (the person who is responsible for prosecuting crimes in our city) should be an exemplar of ethical conduct, demonstrating living within the intention of the law, not skirting the edges of it.

What you have demonstrated instead is an attitude of arrogance that is willing to subjugate propriety to the margins in the pursuit of your particular goals. Your example suggests that in your world ignoring proper procedures is justified when it meets your desires. You are the man charged with pursuing justice in our state, but the very values you have demonstrated fly in the face of the pursuit of justice.

I have little faith at this point that you would be willing or able to resign, although given the cloud you have left over your administration, I think it would be best for all.

What do you think? Is Mr. Funk’s mea culpa adequate, or is it time for Glenn to go?

Oh no you don’t…

January 9, 2013

A new market analysis said the SoBro district in Downtown Nashville could be primed for a big business boom, but that the homeless problem there might make development difficult.

via Report: Homelessness Hinders Downtown Development –

During the debates around the funding and construction of the Music City Center one of the questions that I regularly asked the leaders of the project is what impact the MCC project would have on the existing homeless ministries and population headquartered in the SoBro district of Nashville. It was clear to me at the time that a convention center designed to be a showcase for the city would likely come into conflict with the presence of a large homeless community that has been present in that area for as long as anyone could remember. Certainly, the location of the Nashville Rescue Mission across the street is the most visible presence, but the Campus for Human Development is just a few blocks up — an organization that is well loved and respected by the churches of Nashville, and has expanded it’s facilities within the past couple of years. The fact is that the primary source of services for the homeless of Nashville are located in SoBro, and I could see storm clouds brewing. 

Of course, as I expected, no leaders of the MCC project were willing to address the question at the time. In at least two public forums where I asked about the future of the homeless in the area, they side stepped the question, changed the subject, and at best made some sort of mumbling about how the project would raise property values and spur area development. They knew, as I knew, that the presence of the homeless were a problem for their showcase, but as was typical for the circumstances they refused to address the long-term consequences of their project. 

This innocuous little report quoted above is the first shot across the bow of a larger battle over the presence of homeless folks around the MCC. The powers that be have made sure that their hands are clean of the speaking the difficult truth that tourist focused commercial development and guys with stringy hair, reeking of wine and sweat, who aren’t hesitant to ask for a spare dollar don’t mix too well. Don’t get me wrong . . . I’ve spent too many nights at Room in the Inn programs and understand that homeless folks find themselves in that plight for a variety of reasons, and that many are hardworking who have simply fallen on bad times. However, the hard core, long term homeless are more often than not addicted to a variety of substances, and or struggling with mental health issues, and aren’t always the most rational and reasonable folks to deal with. But for more years than I can remember, the SoBro region, especially South of Lafayette (behind the Rescue Mission) has been a refuge for those whose backs are up against the wall, and that refuge is in danger of being taken away in the desire to create commercial development to support the monstrosity that we’ve built. The MDHA commissioned report provides the first mention of what will likely be an ongoing “problem” in the coming years, and I will not be surprised when efforts are made to move the Rescue Mission, and then the Campus for Human Development to other locations away from the city core. 

For all of the hopes of some of my progressive friends back when he was elected, Mayor Karl Dean has had a dismal record of failure when it comes to dealing with the issue of homelessness in Nashville. One would think as a former public defender that he would have some sense of the issue and some of the needs of that community. Yet, outside of some basic lip service, Mayor Dean has not seemed particularly interested in the social safety net side of governmental services, and certainly not the challenges of the homeless community. In the days after the 2010 floods the mayor’s office was noticeably missing in trying to address the needs of the former tent city residents, leaving the question of how to deal with this population to a set of dedicated volunteers and clergy. The Metro Homelessness Commission has languished during the Dean administration, some of which can be attributed to its members, but part of which is reflective of a mayor who is more concerned with creating new business opportunities than assisting those who are down and out. I wish I could think that the report above isn’t more than it is, but given the record so far I can’t imagine that this isn’t a sign of rough waves ahead. 

It will be important in the days ahead for people of faith to speak up for the “least of these” and insist that solutions be developed that don’t uproot services for the homeless in the pursuit of growth and profitability. It will be crucial for people of faith to reaffirm our support of these important ministries, and to speak loudly and with one voice that while we understand the challenges of having a major tourist center and a large homeless population in the same vicinity, the homeless were here first (!) and that they have every right to remain where they have always been. I will not be surprised if we will have to do more than taking homeless guys into our congregations once a week, and have to hit the streets to ensure that the basic rights on these men and women are not trampled on in the pursuit of the almighty dollar. 

Keep your eyes open. There’s probably more to come on this story. 

The Disappearing Advocate

November 20, 2012

Okay, it seems time to come up for air after far too long of being dormant on this site. I suppose one could argue that the silence from my office on Nashville issues is a sign that all is well, and in some ways they crisis mode that seemed to be inaugurated during Karl Dean’s first term (not always originating with him) has settled down a bit. There was a time when we seemed to bounce from event to event — English only . . . Metro General Hospital . . . the convention center . . . the fairgrounds (and for me the potential impact of that closing on Hickory Hollow) . . . and then the floods. It was an eventful first term for Mayor Dean and I suppose that his reelection led to a collective sigh and a desire to just mozy along without any drama. Yes, there was a property tax increase, but given the anti-tax climate of this state the debate was relatively quiet and the rhetoric was pretty muted. There have been school board issues — but we’ve had drama in the Metro Schools for years and for the most part they’ve ceased to be news.

In the calm after a season of controversy and difficulty, it’s been easy to cast my interest in the politics of Nashville aside. Yet, some of my silence has been due to the continuing belief that all politics is ultimately local, and my focus on the politic of our adopted community (Old Hickory) which didn’t leave a lot of time for the broader concerns of Nashville. The things that happen here – be they a zoning change or the opening of a new business – don’t necessarily resonate with other Nashvillians . . . even though they are vitally important to my neighbors. And thus it’s been easy to sit on the back porch and keep my vision limited to the streets around me, failing to look up at the horizon and the big city down the road.

I wish I could say that I’m back and that I’m going to be more diligent to offering commentary about the city that I love, but I know myself, know my schedule, and know that life often throws curves. This post is being written as much to say “I’m still here . . . I haven’t gone away” as anything substantive. And yet, I really WANT to get back to writing here as I ‘m convinced that engaged conversation offers the creative solutions to the problems we face.

We live in a difficult time. Our society as a whole is deeply polarized, with competing visions of what life in America is supposed to look like. The tension between the needs of neighborhoods and residents of Nashville and the businesses those residents work for continues to be present, with some thinking that economic development is a reflexive “anything business wants” stance while other of us believe that it represents intentional thinking about the kind of place in which we want to live, which may limit business expansion and development at times. Our city is both vibrant in some places, but very much in decay in others, and in spite of the rhetoric and desire of the Nashville Chamber and the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, we are far from a world class city. We may look good on TV on Wednesday nights, but there are all sorts of neighborhoods that Hayden and Connie are avoiding in taping their show.

What worries me is two comments in heard recently. The first came in a conversation with a long-time advocate for the poor in our city about the new TV show. I was describing the Power’s Booth character, the Belle Meade business who was pulling the political strings behind the scenes and this advocate said (somewhat jokingly but with a serious look on his face), “Oh, I didn’t know that this show was a documentary.” The second comment came in a conversation with a long-time judge the other day in which he noted that “…the Chamber of Commerce is running this city.”

While neither comment surprised me (for they reflect thoughts I’ve had for quite a while) it’s troublesome that it’s become so blatant that  folks openly proclaim it. It was blatant in the debate over the Great Hearts Charter proposal that was ultimately rejected by the school board (with the subsequent punishment by the powers that be who were shocked to see the people rise up with a different opinion than their own). It was blatant when the Tennessean, a paper founded on truth-telling in the face of power, published one of the most bizarre endorsements in their history in which they provided all the arguments why they shouldn’t endorse the republican candidate for president and then endorsed him anyway. There is a particular group with a particular vision of what this city should look like, and Lord help you if your vision is just slightly different.

Don’t get me wrong . . . the people who have been pulling the strings aren’t necessarily bad people (they aren’t our Nashville soap opera villian). I tend to believe (naively some would say) that they want the best for the city. However, in most cases they tend to believe that their vision is the only vision, and that anyone who questions the wisdom of their vision or has a different vision is an enemy to be attacked. In a “my way or the highway” world, this culture of personal attack is out of control, and our ability to come together as “one people, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” dries up and turns to dust.

We have to find a new way – a way that recognizes that governance (be it at the city, state, or federal level) can never be effective when it’s about power and control rather than “we, the people.”

For me, that happens when people sit down across the divide and talk with one another about the problems we face. It happens when we invest the time in creative conversation, recognizing our valid differences, but trying to find the places of common ground where we can move forward.

When we do so, a strange thing rises up – the sense of hope. Hope blooms when people think about the possibilities and then come up with the means to bring that vision to reality. Hope springs forth when transparency takes precedence over back room dealings and people begin to feel heard. Hope is the force that brings forth change, and without it the polarization continues and we fail to be everything that we are supposed to be.

It’s time for some hope in our city. Let’s come together and see if we can find some.


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