February 10, 2010
Thank you all for having me here today. I’m honored. And, frankly, it’s possible – possible – that, you know, I’m a little intimidated.
What I mean is, we’re here today not only to celebrate Barbara Jordan, but to celebrate another important and wonderful part of her legacy that not a lot of people know about – her commitment to the homeless. And we’re here to celebrate you all and everything you’ve done for the Trinity Center, the people you serve, and all of Central Texas.
So the bar is that much higher for public servants, here and everywhere. I consider it my privilege every single day that I even get to try to clear that bar. I’ll try again today.
I talk a lot about the region’s assets – the connections between a beautiful place, a vibrant culture, and a thriving economy that have made the Austin area attractive, and made it home, to so many people.
But few assets are as valuable as the Trinity Center, and none are more important.
To me, your mission has been among the most vital and moving I’ve encountered since entering public service. I was elected mayor in 1997. That was two years before Trinity Center was launched, like so many great Austin start-ups, out of a garage.
My introduction to your mission started, I guess, when I was first running for mayor. I remember the campaign and meeting in a downtown church to talk about the issue of homelessness with people who were committed to good work. And, I remember at the time realizing, for the first time, that I didn’t know really anything substantive about the issue.
After I took office, I was struck almost immediately by two things: the severity of the homeless problem in Austin, and the really shocking inability or even refusal of so many people – including people I like, respect, and usually agree with – to address it.
So I worked to create infrastructure not just for the businesses and developers looking to build downtown, but also for our fellow men and women who converged there looking for a place to rest, a meal to eat, and – especially on days like today – any kind of warmth.
I was amazed, and I remain amazed, at how many folks insisted those goals were mutually exclusive.
They presented it as the worst sort of zero-sum game: take care of your city – as they defined the city – or take care of the homeless. And I don’t need to tell you which part of that equation those folks were cheering for.
We did a lot of work on the homeless issue when I was mayor. I’m still proud of it. We built the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. We empowered and formed lasting partnerships with non-profits and faith-based groups like yours that are doing so much to address this daily tragedy. And we beat back the strong, orchestrated, well-financed effort to sweep up the homeless and dump them in East Austin or some other part of the region where they could be safely and guiltlessly ignored and forgotten.
But, I must say, if you ask me to name for you the one area I consider to be a failure – or at least the area I was most frustrated by, the area I stayed up at night knowing I wasn’t achieving what I wanted, or just stayed upset about – it was this one. I never felt like this city wrapped its arms around the issue of homelessness and those who are homeless as it should and as I should have been able to lead it to do.
I was so moved by the effort that, after I left the mayor’s office – I actually asked for a space on the board of the Community Partnership for the Homeless – and I guess it was an offer they couldn’t refuse, because I was a board member for two years.
But was it all enough? As I say, it wasn’t. Of course not.
You all know that. You see the need every day in the faces of those you serve and the line that wraps around your corner. And you know the numbers – more than 5,000 homeless people on any given night in Austin and Travis County, 616 homeless families with children, 3,000 to 5,000 homeless AISD students, a housing shortage of at least 3,000 units …
It breaks my heart.
There’s a lot that makes Austin special. But folks like you, facilities like this, offerings like your wonderful Neighbor-To-Neighbor program, and your mission most of all – that’s what makes Austin decent.
Christ preached your mission. Matthew 25 is appropriately famous, and I’ll bet a lot of you who live verses 35 and 36 know them by heart:
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’”
The Psalmist understood your mission, too. In Psalm 9, David wrote, “But the needy will not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the afflicted ever perish.”
And Barbara Jordan knew your mission.
It’s another inspiration, but not a surprise, that she left money in her will for those who feed and serve people with little more than their dignity and humanity. And it’s an enormous credit to your organization and your service that the bounty went to the Trinity Center.
Service such as yours SHOULD be rewarded. It should be inspiring, because it’s something everyone can do. It offers fulfillment that’s literally infinite.
Three weeks ago, we all celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In putting together the Watson Wire, my weekly newsletter, for that week, I revisited some of my favorite writings by Dr. King.
The one I quoted was a passage from his sermon on the Drum Major Instinct, which he delivered 42 years ago, shortly before he was killed. In it, Dr. King preached:
“And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.”
He continued, “And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”
Well, this room … is full of servants. And you’ve all achieved greatness in your service to others.
But, again, it’s not enough.
Quite simply, we need more people like you. We need more people doing the work you do. Beyond that, we need more people like you at the Texas Capitol, Austin City Hall, and everywhere else where powerful people set priorities and spend money.
We need folks who know the numbers AND the faces, who will stand up for the humanity and dignity of our brothers and sisters in the streets, and who will demand not only fair laws, but fair budgets.
And we must evangelize. We’ve got to take the folks in this room and add to our numbers. We’ve got to make sure that more of our friends, our family and our neighbors have the opportunity to achieve the level of spirituality set out in scripture and the standard of greatness articulated so clearly by Dr. King.
In short, we need to follow the path Barbara Jordan set before us. As she said in her Democratic National Convention speech 34 years ago:
“We are attempting to fulfill our national purpose, to create and sustain a society in which all of us are equal.”
On behalf of this region, thank you – so very much – for doing so much to make sure that standard also applies to the least among us.
God bless you.