Sunday, January 15, 2012

West End Retreat Weekend

This past weekend we spend 3 days in the West End of Birmingham in order to prepare for the work we will do there this upcoming week.  We stayed at the Walnut Grove facility and spent time touring West End and hearing from some residents.  
Friday evening, after we toured Urban Ministries and settled into Walnut Grove, we had the pleasure of hearing from Kristina Scott from the Alabama Poverty Project.  During her presentation, "Poverty in Alabama", we focused on the challenges of poverty and the importance of relationships that will repair Alabama.  We did activities that helped us realize the challenges that families living below the poverty level face and the sense of hopelessness that they can be filled with.  One of the most important parts of this presentation, however, was the effect that hope can have.  Before she left, Kristina made a point to impress on us how important it is to be hopeful for change and stay positive through all the hard times.  
Saturday morning we heard from Mike Harper, a minister who grew up in West End, and Michael, a resident of West End and worker at Urban Ministry.  Our conversation with Michael made the reasons behind West End's poverty more evident, and made it easier to understand the transition West End had under gone.  Birmingham's focus on steel ("Pittsburgh of the South") and refusal of many money making opportunities (Sears and an International Airport) kept the city from growing and prospering.  
After hearing from these two men, we were taken on a driving tour of West End by R.G. Lyons (pastor of Church Without Walls) and his wife, Mary Paige.  This tour really showed us that one of the major challenges the poor face is reliable transportation.  1/4 of houses in West End do not have a car.  This makes it very hard to get groceries, or even obtain a good job.  
We then spent some time at the West End Library and heard from Alice, Michael Morrison, and Earnestine Redman; two city officials and a resident of West End.  Hearing from them, we learned about government problems in the city, and the unfair problems many people face on a daily basis.  We also got to talk to three teenage girls who are very successful sophomores in high school. They have aspirations and dreams.  They know what they want to be when they grow up and they work hard on homework and do well in school.  They are three very normal teenagers who love to do the same things that any of us do on the weekends.  They go to the mall and movies and get too loud in public.  But will they achieve their goals?  Because they do not have the same resources as we do, will they be able to go to college and achieve their goals?
Sunday morning we attended church at New Hope.  The service, I'm sure was more than any of us were expecting, or used to, but was a wonderful experience none the less.  It really exemplified the community and love that we heard about from so many people.  It showed that even though these people suffer and struggle daily, they are filled with hope and love for one another that gets them through the days and gives them the strength and courage to keep trying.  
What did we all take away from the weekend?  Well, I can't speak for everyone, but my impression of West End was completely different than I originally thought.  Meeting residents and hearing just a small portion of what their lives are like, was an eye opening experience showing that people really do live in poverty and get by on $2 per person per day for food.  Despite the sobering facts we heard and the depressing stories people told us, for me, there was an overwhelming sense of hope by the end of the weekend.  Relationships and hope are what can save West End and Birmingham as a whole.  If you look at all the problems at once, things may seem hopeless, but if you look at the smaller picture and take small, but necessary steps, improvement is possible.  

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