Loving the San Francisco Bay Area... Community development, urban ministry, trying to defeat poverty, faith, religion, politics, good music, the quest for the perfect pizza, the Yankees, motorcycles... All in a 'day's life'

Friday, August 31, 2007

Yankees Surge!

Yankees sweep Boston at the Stadium and pull ahead in wild card race. They also pull to 5 behind the slumping Red Sox! Go Yankees!

The victory, completing a sweep on the heels of strong pitching from Andy Pettitte and Clemens, moved New York into sole possession of the American League Wild Card lead. New York closed within five games of the AL East-leading Red Sox.

"We know we're better than what we did in Detroit," manager Joe Torre said, referring to a lost weekend in which the Yankees dropped three of four. "There wasn't anything we had to answer to. You're going to do as well as your pitching, and our starting pitching in this series was terrific."

"Nothing's over until your last out," Cano said. "We've got a month left. We've got to keep playing hard and win games."

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Non Profit Payday Loans?

Here's a recent
New York Times article sent to me from Katie at NCHM on payday lending. I know that the NCUD / CTCU-EPA partnership is going to have to create the right program addressing the needs for short term lending for low income families. We don't have the answers yet, but it's definitely on our radar.
APPLETON, Wis. — This city of 70,000 has five McDonald’s franchises, three Pizza Huts, four Starbucks shops — and 19 payday loan stores, brightly lighted storefronts with names like EZ Money and Check Into Cash that offer two-week loans without credit checks.

Peggy Truckey, 53, knows the allure. Last year she owed nearly $1,300 to four of those stores, and was paying about $600 a month in finance fees alone. “I thought I was going to have to take a second job just to pay off the interest,” Ms. Truckey said.

Then she heard about a new nonprofit program operated out of a Goodwill thrift store, one of several hundred lower-cost payday loan products that are now being tried by credit unions around the country. She got a payday loan, at half the finance charge, but also something more: help converting all her two-week payday debts, which charged the equivalent of more than 500 percent annual interest, to a one-year loan at 18.9 percent, bringing her monthly payments down to a manageable $129. A few dollars from each payment go into a savings account, the first she has had in years.

“I have almost $100 in savings,” said Ms. Truckey, who earns $9.50 an hour as a supermarket meat clerk. “I’m in a comfortable position for the first time in many years.”

The program, GoodMoney, a collaboration between Goodwill and Prospera Credit Union, is a response to an industry that has been criticized by lawmakers and consumer advocates as predatory but that has reached as many as one in 20 Americans.

“Our goal is to change behavior, to interrupt the cycle of debt,” said Ken Eiden, president of Prospera, who is also a director at Goodwill.

For Ms. Truckey, as for most payday borrowers, the loans began as a stopgap. After losing her job in 2002 she borrowed $500 from a payday store, which charged $22 per two weeks for every $100 borrowed, or the equivalent of 572 percent annual interest. When the loan came due in two weeks, she could repay only the $110 finance charge, so she rolled the loan over, adding another finance charge.

Soon she took a second loan, from another store, and eventually two more, which she rolled over every two weeks, multiplying the cost of the loans. Even after she found a full-time job, she said, “I wasn’t able to pay my electric bill on time or my other bills on time, because half my paycheck was going to finance charges.”

At GoodMoney, tellers encourage borrowers to consolidate their debt in lower-interest term loans, and to use other credit union services like automatic savings. If borrowers cannot repay a loan after rolling it over twice, they can get the loan interest-free by attending a free credit counseling session with a nonprofit service.

GoodMoney arose out of cases like Ms. Truckey’s, said Bob Pedersen, president of Goodwill Industries of North Central Wisconsin, which provides services to low-income people. A few years ago, Mr. Pedersen said, the organization noticed that both its clients and its employees were struggling with payday loans.

“It wasn’t uncommon to find them a good job, then see them upside down on credit, with debt they wouldn’t be able to pay off in their lifetime,” he said.

Some of Goodwill’s directors, Mr. Pedersen said, initially opposed offering payday loans, even at lower interest. But Mr. Eiden, Prospera’s president, said that “a lot of consumers felt they were a savior.”

Of the $9.90 that GoodMoney charges per $100 borrowed, nearly half goes to writing off bad loans, Mr. Eiden said, and the rest to database service and administrative costs.

Since June 2005, the program has made more than 5,600 payday loans, a negligible dent in Wisconsin’s payday loan business.

Recalling the way the loans had piled up, Mr. McGrath, a 41-year-old maintenance mechanic, said: “We thought, ‘O.K., we can get this one over here and pay off these others.’ But it never works out. I’d need a set of tires for the car: back you go.”

“We sold things out of our home just to eat,” he added.

This brings up some interesting conversations about what a non profit should do and whether a non profit has a right to charge for a service such as this. I'm also having some conversaions about the issue of interest and costs as we think about domestic micro enterprise lending. These are exciting conversations! You can read the whole Times article here.

Q. What do you think? Should a non profit organization charge for a service similar to what is described in the article? What is the church's role in solving problems like this?

Mother Theresa's Dark Night

The New York Times reports about some of the faith struggles Mother Theresa had. It's actually comforting to me to see the 'real' life of those I admire. To me, it makes her more of a saint. How many of us have similar thoughts as we walk through life?
The private journals and letters of the woman now known as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta will be released next month as “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light,” and some excerpts have been published in Time magazine. The pious title of the book, however, is misleading. Most of its pages reveal not the serene meditations of a Catholic sister confident in her belief, but the agonized words of a person confronting a terrifying period of darkness that lasted for decades.

“In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss,” she wrote in 1959, “of God not wanting me — of God not being God — of God not existing.” According to the book, this inner turmoil, known by only a handful of her closest colleagues, lasted until her death in 1997.

In 1946, Mother Teresa, then 36, was hard at work in a girls school in Calcutta when she fell ill. On a train ride en route to some rest in Darjeeling, she had heard what she would later call a “voice” asking her to work with the poorest of the poor, and experienced a profound sense of God’s presence.

A few years later, however, after founding the Missionaries of Charity and beginning her work with the poor, darkness descended on her inner life. In 1957, she wrote to the archbishop of Calcutta about her struggles, saying, “I find no words to express the depths of the darkness.”

But to conclude that Mother Teresa was a crypto-atheist is to misread both the woman and the experience that she was forced to undergo.

Even the most sophisticated believers sometimes believe that the saints enjoyed a stress-free spiritual life — suffering little personal doubt. For many saints this is accurate: St. Francis de Sales, the 17th-century author of “An Introduction to the Devout Life,” said that he never went more than 15 minutes without being aware of God’s presence. Yet the opposite experience is so common it even has a name. St. John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic, labeled it the “dark night,” the time when a person feels completely abandoned by God, and which can lead even ardent believers to doubt God’s existence.

During her final illness, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the 19th-century French Carmelite nun who is now widely revered as “The Little Flower,” faced a similar trial, which seemed to center on doubts about whether anything awaited her after death. “If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into,” she said to the sisters in her convent. But Mother Teresa’s “dark night” was of a different magnitude, lasting for decades. It is almost unparalleled in the lives of the saints.

In time, with the aid of the priest who acted as her spiritual director, Mother Teresa concluded that these painful experiences could help her identify not only with the abandonment that Jesus Christ felt during the crucifixion, but also with the abandonment that the poor faced daily. In this way she hoped to enter, in her words, the “dark holes” of the lives of the people with whom she worked. Paradoxically, then, Mother Teresa’s doubt may have contributed to the efficacy of one of the more notable faith-based initiatives of the last century.

Few of us, even the most devout believers, are willing to leave everything behind to serve the poor. Consequently, Mother Teresa’s work can seem far removed from our daily lives. Yet in its relentless and even obsessive questioning, her life intersects with that of the modern atheist and agnostic. “If I ever become a saint,” she wrote, “I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ ”

Mother Teresa’s ministry with the poor won her the Nobel Prize and the admiration of a believing world. Her ministry to a doubting modern world may have just begun.

Q. How about you? Have you ever had a 'dark night'? What was it like? What did you learn ? How did you grow?

Monday, August 20, 2007

Life in Silicon Valley

We live in a very unique and exciting place. I would say that our area is one of the worlds leaders in many areas, certainly technology but also medicine, education, philanthropy and many other arenas. We live and rub shoulders with trend setters and world shakers every day. However, there is a out of control feel to life here that can sometimes take charge, where enough is never enough. With crazy housing costs, even folks who would be considered wealthy and rich other places are only middle class here.

The New York Times did very interesting article on life and riches in Silicon Valley called "Millionaires Who Don't Feel Rich" I've excerpted some of the article below. It's a glimpse into the lives of folks right across the bridge from East Palo Alto and eastern Menlo Park. The article shows the mid set of people who live in our region. It eludes to the cost of living in our area and what it takes to love here, but also the 'golden treadmill' and the temptation to always want more. Those of us who have taken a 'silicon valley vow of poverty' include pastors, teachers, police... all feel the similar pressures. While sometimes it's easy to be discouraged I also feel blessed and honored to love in such a beautiful and influential place.
"Silicon Valley is thick with those who might be called working-class millionaires — nose-to-the-grindstone people like Mr. Steger who, much to their surprise, are still working as hard as ever even as they find themselves among the fortunate few. Their lives are rich with opportunity; they generally enjoy their jobs. They are amply cushioned against the anxieties and jolts that worry most people living paycheck to paycheck.

But many such accomplished and ambitious members of the digital elite still do not think of themselves as particularly fortunate, in part because they are surrounded by people with more wealth — often a lot more."

"Like most of her neighbors, Ms. Baranski splurged most on a house in a community studded with some of the most expensive real estate in the country. Early in 2001, when Ms. Baranski seemed richer than she was, they paid $1.95 million for a dilapidated house in Menlo Park, knowing they would tear it down. They spent $1 million over the next few years building their dream house.

Ms. Baranski recognizes, of course, that she is far better off than many of her neighbors. Even well-paid college administrators, professors and other white-collar professionals struggle to pay their bills in this expensive redoubt 30 miles south of San Francisco.

“I don’t know how people live here on just a normal salary,” said Ms. Baranski.

Her nanny rents an apartment in Palo Alto, Ms. Baranski said. She pays her what she described as a generous salary and gave her the keys to her old Saab when she bought the newer one. But “basically I have no idea how she survives here."

"Mr. Hettig, the estate planning lawyer, sums it up for many: “We’re in such a rarefied environment,” he said, “people here lose perspective on what the rest of the world looks like.”"

"Then there are the additional burdens on this digital elite, said Ms. Holland, the psychologist — demands they are typically not prepared to handle.

“There are all these people who come to you for money,” Ms. Holland said. “Siblings, parents, other relatives. Organizations seeking charitable contributions. There’s this assumption you have all this money — so why don’t you write a big check to the school or to this other charity?”

Other pressures can come from within the social circle. Mr. Barbagallo, for instance, remembers when several couples tried cajoling his wife and him — unsuccessfully — to fly to Las Vegas for a charity event featuring Andre Agassi.

“You look around,” Mr. Barbagallo said, “and the pressures to spend more are everywhere.” Children want the latest fashions their peers are wearing and the most popular high-ticket toys. Furniture does not seem up to snuff once you move into a multimillion-dollar home. Spouses talk, and now that resort in Mexico the family enjoyed so much last winter is not good enough when looking ahead to next year. Summer camp, a full-time housekeeper, vintage wines, country clubs: the cost of living bloats. "

" To Mr. Milletti, it all looks like a marathon with no finish line.

“Here, the top 1 percent chases the top one-tenth of 1 percent, and the top one-tenth of 1 percent chases the top one-one-hundredth of 1 percent,” he said.

“You try not to get caught up in it,” he added, “but it’s hard not to.” "

Friday, August 17, 2007

Counting Crows - Rain King

Counting Crows, a great 90's band that produced two timeless records, "August and Everything After" and "Recovering the Satellites". Those two records are still in regular rotation on my ipod. They are perhaps one of the most underrated live bands out. My sister Kelli turned me on to them when we lived in Guadalajara, Mexico in 1994. Although at the time she pretty much lived on tacos and the Cure.

Here a live version of their classic, "Rain King" recorded in 2003. This song is one of my favorites from 'August..."

The Passing of a Saint

Time magazine on the last moments of Ruth Graham Bell:
... Three days later, Billy and their five sons and daughters were ringed around Ruth's bed, reading scripture, singing Great is Thy Faithfulness, a hymn sung by millions of people at Graham's crusades. Finally, at twilight, she took a few last breaths. Billy leaned over and kissed her cheek and her forehead. He asked his children to sing the doxology with him, and they struggled through it, praising God, "from who all blessings flow." The cat that has been shooed away from the bed for months was now allowed to jump on the bed and curl up beside her. And then the family lit a fire in her fireplace, just the way she liked it. "I know God has prepared a home for her in heaven," Billy told his friends at her burial. "I just hope she saves a room for me."

But it has become clear that a man who spent his life teaching people how to die, with hope for an eternal kingdom that is no longer a theological abstraction to him. Heaven is where Ruth is. "Someday soon I will join her," he says. "Most of all, I take comfort in the hope we can have of eternal like in Heaven because of Christ's death and resurrection for us. I've preached this message almost all my life, and it means more to me now than ever before."

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Sitting in Starbucks

Internet is down at our office - so I'm in Starbucks. Wonder how many folks I'll bump into when I'm here. Starbucks is the center of the East Palo Alto universe.

As if I don't need more things to distract me, Jason sent me this. It's the top worst album covers. Swing your gospel axe! (a quote from one of the albums...) Man, this is great stuff. Jason says he has four of the records, he's an '80's music nerd.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Public Enemy, "Harder than You Think"

Just like dat!

Books and Music Commentary

I usually have three books going at once. One for devotional reading in the morning, one for enrichment or work related issues and a novel for recreational reading. For my daily devotional reading (along with my NIV / the Message Parallel Bible) I've been reading Henri Nouwen's "Can You Drink the Cup". I really enjoy Henri's perspective on faith and spirituality. If you're not read any of Nouwen's material, I strongly encourage you to do so. I would start with the book "In the Name of Jesus".

"Can you Drink the Cup" was written near the end of his life and is reflective in nature. Here's an excerpt from what I read this morning from the chapter "Lifting the Cup":
Mostly we are willing to look back at our lives and say, "I am grateful for the good things that brought me to this place."

But when we lift our cup to life, we must dare to say, " I am grateful for all that has happened to me and led me to this moment." This gratitude which embraces all of our past is what makes our life a true gift to others, because the gratitude erases bitterness, resentments, regret and revenge as well as all jealousies and rivalries. It transforms our past into a fruitful gift for the future, and makes our life, all of it, into a life that gives life.
What an amazing to way to live! How many times do I wallow in what I should have done, didn't do and wish I hadn't done? Truth is, I can't change what has already happened - but I can learn from it and move forward in grace and peace. These are easy words to read and write, but it's something I'm struggling to practice.

The Kite Runner is one of the most powerful pieces of fiction I've read in years. I've seen the book around for a long while now, and picked it up a couple of weeks ago. It is an amazing portrayal of selfless friendship, betrayal, reconciliation, forgiveness and restitution set in the Bay Area, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It's not necessarily political in nature but does show the passion and heart of the Afghan people. This book will stay in my collection for years, it's one I may revisit often as it's themes are important and poignant.

I have a great excerpt I'd love to post, but I don't want to give anything away!

I just picked up the new Public Enemy record, "How You Sell Your Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold their Soul?" GREAT record. Chuck D., as always, has excellent commentary. He specifically takes on the commercial rap business and comments on it's destructive nature it has on urban communities. It's definitely 'old school' but worth listening to and supporting. I'm not too sure of Flav anymore - he seems as much as a sell out as any... I'm tried of the Flava of Love on VH1 and wish it would go away. But - Chuck keeps bringing the truth - he's still "Fighting the Power"!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Job Posting for Credit Union Position

POSITION TITLE: Financial/Member Service Representative (PT)
SALARY: $12.00- 15.00/ Hr (DOE)

We are looking for a friendly, energetic, dedicated individual for our East Palo Alto Branch. We train in all aspects of our front line operations. If you are anxious to be part of a team that values team work and excellent member service, Community Trust Credit Union is the place for you.

Responsible for performing a broad variety of paying and receiving functions, including processing deposits, withdrawals, loan payments, cashiers’ checks, money orders, and cash advances. As well as a broad variety of member services such as opening accounts, renewing certificate accounts and assisting members with bookkeeping and checking account matters.

Candidates that meet the following requirements are encouraged to apply for this position IMMEDIATELY. This is a part-time position.

To apply for this position, please email your resume and cover letter to pita1980@aol.com, or mail it to 1836 Bay Rd #B, East Palo Alto, CA 94303 Attn: Maria Chavez.

For further information please call (209) 521-6015 ext.255.

• High school graduate or equivalent.
• Basic understanding of Credit Union operations.
• Prior cash handling or Teller experience with a financial services firm (bank or credit union) is a plus.
• Excellent communication & interpersonal skills.
• Bilingual (Spanish/English) is a plus.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Flip Side of Entrepreneurship

Picked this up at (where else) Guy Kawasaki's blog. Oh man - has this been true for us as we've started NCUD. Here Guy quotes Glenn Kellman, the CEO of Redfin. This speaks volumes to me - many of the things he addresses are things I've thought, said or worried about. As someone who has been involved in four start up works and many re-engineering projects in the ministry / non profit world, Glenn's comment ring true. I've edited comments - you can see the full article on Guy's website.
Like the souls in Dostoevsky who are admitted to heaven because they never thought themselves worthy of it, successful entrepreneurs can’t be convinced that any other startup has their troubles, because they constantly compare the triumphant launch parties and revisionist histories of successful companies to their own daily struggles. Just so you know you’re not alone, here’s a top-ten list of the ways a startup can feel deeply screwed up without really being that screwed up at all.

- True believers go nuts at the slightest provocation. The best people at a start-up care too much. They stay up late writing Jerry Maguire memos, eavesdropping on support calls, snapping at bureaucracy. They are your heart and bones, so you have to give them what they need, which is a lot. The only way to get them on your side is to put them in charge.

- Big projects attract good people. If you aren’t doing something worthwhile, you can’t get anyone worthwhile to work on it. I often think about what Ezra Pound once said of his epic poem, that "if it's a failure, it's a failure worth all the successes of its age.” You need a big mission to recruit people who care about what you’re doing.

- Start-ups are freak-catchers. You have to be fundamentally unhappy with the way things are to leave Microsoft, and yet unrealistic enough to believe the world can change to join a start-up. This is a volatile combination which can result in group mood swings and a somewhat motley crew. Thus, don’t worry if your start-up seems to have more than its fair share of oddballs.

- Time. To make something elegant takes time, and the cult of speed sometimes works against that.

- Everybody has to re-build. The short-cuts you have to take and the problems you couldn’t anticipate when building version 1.0 of your product always mean you’ll have to rebuild some of it in version 2.0 or 3.0. Don’t get discouraged or short-sighted. Just rebuild it. This is just how things work.

- Fearless leaders are often terrified. Just because you're worried doesn't mean you have a bad idea; the best ideas are often the ones that scare you the most. And for sure don't believe the after-the-fact statements from entrepreneurs about how they "knew" what to do.

- It'll always be hard work. Most start-ups find an interesting problem to solve, then just keep working on it. At a recent awards ceremony, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer tried to think of the secret to Microsoft’s success and could only come up with “hard, hard, hard, hard, hard, work.” This is an obvious cliche, but most entrepreneurs remain fixated on the Eureka! moment. If you don't believe you have any reliable competitive advantage, you're the kind of insecure person who will work your competition into the ground, so keep working.

- It isn't going to get better--it already is. In the early days, start-ups focus on how great it’s going to be when they succeed; but the moment they do, they start talking about how great it was before they did. Whenever I get this way, I remember the Venerable Bede’s complaint that his eighth century contemporaries had lost the fervor of seventh century monks. Even in the darkest of the Dark Ages, people were nostalgic for...the Dark Ages. Start-ups are like medieval monasteries: always convinced that paradise is just ahead or that things only recently got worse. If you can begin to enjoy the process of building a start-up rather than the outcome, you'll be a better leader.

- Truth is our only currency. At lunch last week, an engineer said the only thing he remembered from his interview was our saying the most likely outcome for Redfin--or any startup--was bankruptcy, but that he should join us anyway. It’s odd but the more we've tried to warn people about the risks, the more they seem to ignore them. And since you have to keep taking risks, you have to keep telling people about them. You don't want to be like Saddam Hussein, who never prepared his generals for invasion because he couldn’t admit he didn't have nuclear weapons.
Q. What makes you keep pushing the envolope on existing projects or start new ones? Do you ever feel like you're alone?