Does God care if we shop at chain stores or at local ones? You bet he does. Does the injunction in the 58th chapter of the Book of Isaiah, “Break your bread with the hungry and bring the moaning poor into your home,” suggest that God also may not approve of two-acre zoning or gated communities? Correct again, according to Rabbi Pete Stein, who gave a rousing sermon (genially masquerading as a speech) at a meeting of the Greater New Haven Community Loan Fund (GNHCLF), held at the Graduate Club.
Speaking Tuesday morning on “The Moral Implications of Community Development,” Stein addressed a group of New Haven’s financial and spiritual movers and shakers; he sees scant distinction in the capacity for moral action between the two. Stein said that the way he reads the Bible, God is calling on all of us to work, through moments of high spiritual uplift or by resolving to recycle those plastic bags to reduce garbage, to make a world sustainable ecologically, economically, socially, and spiritually.
Stein, though not quite 30 years old, knows this territory. Today he is a rabbi, but after graduating from Yale, he lived and worked and did community organizing at the (late) Dixwell Community “Q” House. He has returned to town to work as director of strategic planning for the Regional Growth Partnership, south central Connecticut’s regional economic development corporation. To describe himself, as Pete Stein does, as a man “blazing a new path for a rabbi” is an understatement of Talmudic proportion.
His words sparked a spirited conversation among the gathered financial executives, non-profit leaders, and clergy in the audience. It was well worth being heard all around town as New Haven confronts, according to Rabbi Stein and his interlocutors, serious issues of income disparity, an affordable housing crisis, and a bad habit of ignoring, in its planning, the basic requirements of the working poor and the city’s neediest. Here are some highlights:
Alderfolks Ina Silverman and Roland Lemar wanted to know what Stein’s suggestions were for political leaders to effect change in people who were quite happy to live behind their gates. Stein answered, “I’m not quite 30 and don’t own a house. You need to educate me, you need to educate people about the implications of such a purchase. The city needs to have an ongoing serious dialogue like what’s happening among us here this morning. And frankly I think ministers and rabbis and religious people must lead the way. When five ministers sit down with the mayor, that makes a difference.”
p(clear). Jack Healey (pictured on the right), the president of the United Way of Greater New Haven, said that one of the greatest challenges is to get people to think beyond the here and the now. “We don’t have a clear picture of the future of the city that we can present. Keeping the oil flowing, the lights, and so forth is as far as we go. The focus on the present is a detriment to getting the changes you’re talking about.”
p(clear). Carla Weil, the executive director of the GNCLF (which underwrites loans for non-profits, the City of New Haven’s affordable housing initiatives, and much else in the spirit of Stein) said she is encouraged that change is going in the right direction. “Look at the green building taking place. Maybe the sense of emergency from global warning was the trigger, but people are not only talking but doing things that not long ago they didn’t want to hear about.”
p(clear). Stein responded: “Yes, yes, on the global warming and education, but it’s all connected. One of my bugaboos is all the stuff we throw out. I once gave a talk on where our municipal trash goes. I tracked it myself. It ends up 65 miles east of here, in Lisbon, Connecticut, where it is burned and releases toxic fumes over a relatively poor area of the state. The ash that is left then is carted to Putnam, 35 miles away, where it is buried and causes who knows what. So our trash, yours and mine, causes someone else cancer. There’s simply, from a moral point of view, no getting away from that. If we love God, how can we keep doing this? That is the question. Do I need this Saran Wrap, this tin foil? Do they enhance sustainability? Those are moral questions of a high order.”
p(clear). Deborah Davis, who works at the Wexler-Grant School Family Resource Center, gracefully revealed her age to be 53 and then said her first apartment in New Haven cost $125 a month. “Now the average apartment is above $1,200. You’re right. Who can afford this?” she asked. “You have to earn $45,000 minimum to pay that rent. The economic disparity in this city is far too great, and getting greater. Where are the young people going to live?”
p(clear). Stein responded, as he is a young person, by broadening the question. He said that often people who might even afford such rents have no sense of place. “My generation,” he said, “was raised on the idea that the most important thing is career. You can move from place to place, use computers, and you are not attached to a location, a neighborhood, a city. You don’t get out. You see virtual, not real. Excessive electronic dependence is not good for community development.”
p(clear). Ruth Henderson, on the right in the photo with Rev. Bonita Grubbs, reminded Rabbi Stein that she remembered him from when he worked in Dixwell. Today she is, among her many affiliations, a member of the Dixwell Management team, and spoke in enthusiastic agreement with much of Stein’s message. “I myself, ” she said, with a candor and forthrightness that characterized the whole conversation, “am guilty of looking at the person in trouble, homeless, without comfort and blaming them. This is not good. We have to be thinking about our youth, not being afraid of them. Development that is all about money is about greed, and slavery was about greed too. We all need to do better.”
p(clear). “That’s what social change is,” responded Stein, “one person stepping up, one at a time.”
p(clear). “The fact,” said Grubbs, executive director of Christian Community Action, “that you are standing up there, under 30 years old and still have this vision, that gives me real hope. The prophets had a great vision and could push people beyond their comfort limits. That’s what you’re doing. Because there is no point in saving the city just for people who we value because they have more money than other people. Valuing people that way profoundly troubles me. It goes against all the values I have. I have hope people like you will replace us if, when we grow tired!”