Might we share a radical vision of love?

A favorite story of mine is, “The Emperor‘s New Clothes.” The story is told in many languages and contexts, but the basic story is as follows. There is an emperor that is quite impressed by himself. The emperor demands the highest quality of clothes, and yet, is never satisfied with his tailors. Thus, the tailors “dress” the emperor with invisible clothes that only the most distinguished persons can see. The emperor is pleased.

The story is always a challenge to me as a leader of a faith-based non-profit that “meets human needs in Jesus Name, without discrimination.” The challenge comes during the continuous long meetings of how to serve the poor most effectively, reduce homelessness, increase social mobility for children, and meet the expectation of funders. Many of these conversations talk about fabrics, colors, frameworks, policies, processes, and minimum improvements. We discuss the current problems that are newsworthy, but rarely discuss the upstream cause of those problems.

Upstream from the problems are the social determinants of well-being. Simply, issues of transportation, income, food security, housing security, environment, access to healthcare and community connections are all pivotal to reducing poverty and community displacement (homelessness). Each of these issues is discussed within our community, but for some reason, the language and tone change when discussed for the poor, extremely poor, and the biased other. 

The community, the collective social sector specifically, has a natural tendency to become the central figure in the stories of service, the “emperor” if you will. We become the hero and the villain. We protect what we do because we try really hard. We even blame each other. We protect what we have because we deserve it. The poor should be thankful because we give them as much as we can, as often as we can. This attitude and process create a QUALITY CHASM.

As the healthcare industry has experienced over the last twenty years, it is the client, patient, beneficiary, "Self" at the center that allows for the greatest effect. Have you noticed the competitive change in healthcare? It is seen in the ER time displays. Imagine if shelter services competed with signs signaling beds available, time to enter, free breakfast with stay, and expected time to increased income and housing. Now, this would be a public commitment to quality services with the “Self” at the center. I contend that it would increase the effectiveness of every shelter and supportive housing service, reduce costs, reduce persons on the street, and reduce suffering. Concentrating on the individual “Self” over any single organization or collective will reduce the quality chasm.

Thus, I have challenged The Salvation Army over the last 18 months. Might we:

- Reduce dependency & entitlement?
- Reduce placating the social entrapments of poverty?
- Reduce the days of homelessness that we cause?
- Reduce other concerning maladaptive (poverty inducing) behavior?

I extend this challenge to our community.  

Might we share a radical vision of love for the individual by providing;

- Individual or "self" centered approaches to great customer service 
Reduce biased poverty language of rules and regulations by increasing a community language of roles and responsibilities.
- Celebrate the vast number of lives changed through our community efforts in order to recognize the strengths of success.
- Reduce the polarization of blame through community building.  

My favorite part of the story of the emperor is the little boy who sees the emperor in the parade and yells “the emperor is naked.” The people who lived in fear celebrated the façade of invisible clothes. The child spoke the obvious and the emperor became aware.

While families sleep in cars,
While women find late night connections,
While men hide under bridges,
While couples prefer tents to the process of housing,
While panhandling pays more than jobs,
While aged racism and bias extend contempt,
While hunger is a fault issue,
While better is good enough,
While we blame our socially displaced neighbors,

 Let us be cautious as we parade through town in our best clothes. For it may be a child sleeping in a car in Nashville that calls us out.

Contributor:  Major Ethan Frizzell serves as the Area Commander of The Salvation Army.  The Salvation Army has been serving in Middle TN since 1899.  A graduate of Harvard Kennedy School, his focus is the syzygy of the community culture, the systems of service, and the lived experience of our neighbors. He uses creative abrasion to rub people just the wrong way so that an offense may cause interaction and then together we can create behaviorally designed solutions to nudge progress. Simply, negotiating the future for progress that he defines as Quality of Life in Jesus!


Misty Ratcliff