Why Leadings?

Not to lead, but to be led            -- by the Holy Spirit.

See Leader, Servant, or Slave? in the section below, "Walking the Walk".

Jack in Denali National Park, 2012.

God's Wrath

Why was Sodom destroyed? Ezekiel tells us in chapter 16, verse 49: "This was the sin of your sister, Sodom: Pride, full-ness of bread, and abundance of idleness. Neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy."

That's also why Jerusalem was destroyed.

And now, with greed as our national virtue, what hope is there for the United States of America? We are afflicted by imperialistic pride, obesity, and entertainment addiction, and we are all called to do our part to "strengthen the hand of the poor and needy".

"Strengthen the hand" is the King James wording. Modern translations say "help the poor and needy." And there's a world of difference between the two. Helping the poor = as little as throwing some cash in the Salvation Army bucket at Christmas time. That's charity. It's doing for, not doing with.

My Grandmother was right about charity. On a below-zero day, she went out on the back porch with a skillet to throw hot grease on the back-yard snow. She shivered as she re-entered the kitchen and said, "Wooooh, colder than charity."

Strengthening the hand is much different. We get personally involved with another person who needs help, and we work with her or him to get the needed help. That's risky. You're vulnerable. It takes prayer, time and patience. You need knowledge and wisdom from the LORD. There are great rewards, however. You get a brother or sister.

Strengthening the hand is great work for our churches -- which we ignore far more often than we perform. Why? Because we're afflicted with the Ameri-can curse of individualism. Christians are to be a tribe -- a tribe that takes care of each other. In Galatians 6:16, Paul calls us "the Israel of God" -- the new 13th tribe.

Jesus said, "The poor you shall always have with you." He didn't mean that as a curse -- the notion that the poor are an inevi-table nuisance and expense, to be hidden in the slums. Rather, He was saying, "You shall always be among the poor."

When you strengthen hands, you fulfill Deuteronomy 15:4-5: "However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God . . ." It's a glorious responsibility and promise.

And how do prosperous Americans fulfill that promise? Generally, by making sure they have no contact with people who are poor -- and we have been that way from our beginnings in the 17th century. Early villages in Massachusetts solved the problem by out-lawing poor people. Today, we deal with the same problem by confining the poor in urban reservations, our slums.

As the Supreme Court Bailiff says at the beginning of each session, "God save the United States of America..." 

Sunday
Jul292012

STRENGTHEN THE HAND

. . . strengthen the hand of the poor . . .  Exekiel 16:49

"Jack, maybe you can help me.  I can't get help no place else – Free Store, Mary Magdelene, Gospel Mission –"

"What's the problem, Curtis?"

"Well, I got no heat, and the upper sash is missing on my kitchen window."

It was mid-February, 2010.  The temperature was 9 degrees above zero.

Curtis Parks and I were at the Wednesday night community dinner at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine.  We knew each other.  I had hired him a few years before as janitor for Prince of Peace, and then five months later, I had fired him for cause.  But, I was willing to work with him and made an appointment for 10 a.m. the next day.

His situation was worse and different than I expected.  He did have some heat in his second-floor apartment. He had an electric range.  With the oven door opened and the oven turned on full, there was some heat. Yes, the upper window sash was missing, but the landlord had nailed a piece of plywood onto the window frame. Problem:  There was a 2½ inch gap between the plywood and the lower sash.  Curtis had stuffed the gap with Kroger plastic bags, but that hardly stopped the cold.  In addition, I could spot half a dozen other Cincinnati building code violations, including no hot water.

We went down to the basement. The gas had been turned off by Cincinnati Gas & Electric. The water heater was red tagged with a date of 2-09.  I couldn't be sure, but it looked as if the landlord had wired some of the electrical service ahead of the meters.

There were ironies here.  The landlord lived in Indian Hill, an eastern suburb of Cincinnati where the lots are zoned at a minimum of two acres.  The local joke is that Indian Hill is the kind of forest God would build – if He could afford it.

The second irony was that I had managed this set of apartment buildings for twenty years until 1999. I promised to return the next day and take pictures. When I arrived, the basement door was locked.

I explained to Curtis that his remedy was escrowing his rent, and I promised to help him.  It was already mid-February, and in ordinary circumstances a 30-day letter to the landlord is required before escrowing rent. However, an exception is made if the code violations endanger health and safety.  Curtis' situation qualified for the exception.

Curtis had no written lease.  He knew neither the landlord's name or address.  The first-floor tenant collected the rent, and he wouldn't give information about the landlord.  So, I learned about the landlord on the internet and wrote five copies of a letter which detailed the code violations of Curtis' apartment.  The letter also stated that Curtis Parks would escrow his March rent with the Clerk of Courts unless the landlord made the needed repairs by March 1.  Curtis signed all five letters, and we mailed them to the landlord, the Building Inspector and Board of Health. We kept one for Curtis' file, the other for the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas.

On the first day of March, we went to the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts.  He submitted the letter to the clerk and paid his March rent, $300.  [Are you surprised by the low rent?  This was Cincinnati where living costs are lower than average. Curtis had a small, but nice three-room apartment – if only the landlord had maintained it.]  During both February and March, the landlord did nothing.

Curtis had no phone. We gave the Building and Health Departments my cell phone number as a contact. Inspectors from both departments phoned me to set up inspections.  Curtis and I were there to show them the problems. Both inspectors told us that the landlord had a long history of mistreating residents and buildings.

On the first day of April, we gave the Clerk of Courts a second letter and the $300 April rent, with copies to landlord, Building Inspector, and Board of Health.

In less than two weeks, the landlord's workers had the gas and hot water turned on and made one crummy repair – there was a wide gap at the bottom of the bathroom door.  They screwed a piece of two-by-four to the floor in the gap – not an approved repair. It's what insurance people call a trip-and-fall. Nothing was done about the kitchen window.

A few days later, the landlord paid Curtis a call, along with four of his Guatemalan workers.  He threatened to throw Curtis out in the street. Fortunately, Curtis had two visitors at the time, both large men. Nothing happened.

Curtis and I enjoyed each others' company. I was there one or two times each week. We'd talk. Sometimes, he fed me lunch.  Also, I repaired a couple of his hazardous problems.  For example, I remember screwing a dangling duplex receptacle to the wall.

Then, I received a call from the County Mediator. Curtis and I arrived for the appointment. The landlord didn't show up. The Mediator explained the purpose of escrowing rent was to get the landlord to bring the apartment up to code. After reading Curtis' two letters, she estimated that the improvements would cost about $10,000, and she expected the landlord to do nothing. 

[The Mediator's estimate was probably accurate for suburban work, but in the '90s, at Sign of the Cross Housing, we would have done the work well for less than a grand.  For example, we would have bought, repaired, and installed a salvaged upper sash in the kitchen window.]

But, there was also an upside.  The weather was getting warm, so the apartment would be a comfortable place to live, and if the landlord failed to upgrade the apartment, the Court would return all of Curtis' paid-in rent.

On May first, we were at the Clerk's office with an updated letter and $300 for May.

Then, by mail, Curtis received a notice of his hearing before a Magistrate of the Court of Common Pleas.  I phoned the Building Inspector and asked whether he would be at the hearing.  No, he replied.  I asked how these rent-escrow hearings worked.  "I dunno.  I've been on this job for 17 years, and this is the first time I've run into one of them."  But, he did make me an offer.  If I'd come to the office the following morning, the receptionist would have for me a copy of the landlord's entire file.  I picked it up.

At the hearing, the landlord was a no-show again.  The Magistrate talked only with Curtis.  I wasn't permitted to stand with him.  She wasn't interested in the file.  To her credit, she was sympathetic to Curtis' situation.  She told him, however, that a second hearing was needed.

Even though the weather was warming, Curtis now had another problem.  The Cincinnati Water Works had turned off the water in the building.  The landlord gave the tenants on the first and third floors access to water in the building next door.  He refused access to Curtis.

Curtis walked about a quarter of a block to the Free Store for his water.  That may not sound like much, but Curtis was in his 60's, a slender man.  And six gallons of water carried in two five-gallon drywall pails was a challenging load.

On June 1, we turned in another letter and another $300.

In mid-June, we arrived for the second hearing.  The landlord maintained his perfect no-show record. The Magistrate was appalled that Curtis had no water in the apartment. She promised to get action from the Building Department on behalf of all the residents, and then she had her clerk give Curtis a voucher. We went down to the County Clerk's office, where Curtis received a check for $1,200 – his four months of rent.

"Wow," he said, "now I can go back home to Alabama."

We went to lunch and celebrated.

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Rent escrow by distressed tenants against delinquent landlords – there's a reason why is seldom works.  Consider the sophistication required.  (1) The tenant has to understand the system.  (2) He or she needs a telephone – and probably a computer to write the letters and do research.  (3) The tenant must be able to write a clear, persuasive letter.  (4) The tenant needs envelopes, paper and stamps, none of which are sold in Over-the-Rhine.  (5) The tenant must be able to represent himself in court, because he can't afford an attorney and Legal Aid won't take this type of case.

And, there's another reason.  Let's say I put in 52 hours with Curtis over a four months period. If I had been a practicing attorney on Fourth Street in Cincinnati (as I could have been) and charged only $300 an hour, my bill for services would have been $15,600. So, Curtis' problem wouldn't have been worth my attention. Even more, if I had been a conventional, prospering attorney living in Indian Hill, it's unlikely that Curtis Parks and I would ever have met.

So, this article is another example of why our justice system doesn't work if you're poor.

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Purpose of this blog is to compile a book for my grandchildren to read in 25 years.

Copyright © 2012 by Jack Towe

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