Remembering those who run uphill and don't give up
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Labor Day these days is one of the least significant holidays on the calendar. It used to be one of the most joyous, when it celebrated the efforts of union founders who struggled against great odds and did much to improve the lives of very poor people.
It can be exciting again, if it becomes a day to remember those who face obstacles but never, never, never give up.
We see and enjoy such stories in movies. Sports films like Hoosiers and Rocky capture the spirit of the underdog who trumps talent with gutsy persistence.
A terrific recent movie now available on video, October Sky, honors the labor of Appalachian students who overcame great obstacles to build rockets in the early post-Sputnik days four decades ago. (Note: The film has a little coarse language, but it's appropriate to and important for the characterization.)
This past summer my 14-year-old son Daniel and I visited seven different inner-city areas. We started out in South Dallas, with its poverty very unlike that of the northern high-rise slums, but with storefront churches on one block and George's Liquors, Super Discount Package, and other purveyors of a despairing religion on the next.
The heat on June 1 in Dallas was already radiating, yet we repeatedly met people who labored on, battling hot despair. We visited Calvin and Johnnie Mae Carter, a retired couple who now run the Sunny Acres Community Center. The Carters by 1990 had had enough of the high weeds and junked cars in their neighborhood.
They wrote 150 letters to the chief of police about drug and crime problems, describing how drug dealers blocked off streets so they could sell dope more easily. Finally the police arrived, rousting the dealers.
With that negative partly eliminated, the Carters began using their community center-a wood frame, former crack house that they bought for $2,500-to give a second chance to young men caught in the drug industry. The GED classes and tutoring they offer open doors to employment.
"Once people are trained, once they're computer-literate, the jobs are there," Mr. Carter said. "But it takes a lot to turn around a 21-year-old who can't read."
Hard labor-but that's what we should be honoring on Labor Day.
Daniel and I visited the Fair Park Friendship Center and its summer education and evangelism program for 40 elementary-school-age children. Resident teacher Tim Oostdyk delayed poking himself with his insulin shot to explain the program, including its end-of-summer trip to Colorado for 16 or so particularly conscientious children.
Curriculum and travel connected cleverly: Students learned math by computing travel distances, geology by studying mountains, and history by hearing about the development of the West. They studied Bible passages concerning mountains, eagles, and hawks. To go on the trip kids had to earn tutoring points, so they had a big incentive to keep coming all summer.
Their hard work, and that of their teacher, deserves honor on Labor Day.
Daniel and I visited Jackie Mixon, founder of the Ideal Neighborhood Association in an area of South Dallas whose appearance belies the name. She's a 44-year-old former school teacher who brought up her three children in a house her grandfather had built. But the house could not hold back time, decline, and drug dealers who started bossing the neighborhood.
Mrs. Mixon started asking neighbors who owned houses not to rent them to dealers, but the dopers made threats and most people gave in. Finally, one elderly woman refused to rent out part of her duplex to dealers. One day, as she was talking on the telephone, they invaded her home and threw her to the floor. She screamed. Neighbors came to her aid. Then they held prayer walks and cooked dinners to raise money to set up a neighborhood association. They sponsored neighborhood cleanups.
Mrs. Mixon emerged as the leader and had to spend several nights in motels as dealers threatened her life. Finally, the police responded: "Undercover cops came in. In six weeks, the drug dealers were gone."
Since then lots of promises have been made, and broken: "Different government agencies come over and they all say they'll put money in, but they become discouraged and then they leave. They'd rather go to an easier neighborhood, I suppose."
But Mrs. Mixon keeps working at it, and her labor deserves honor.
One of God's commands is often called the Sabbath commandment, but it really should be the labor commandment: "On six days you shall labor and do all your work...."
For all those who follow that mandate conscientiously, but especially for those who battle against huge inner-city odds: This Labor Day's for you.
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