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Arkansas Head Start

Welcome to the Website for the Arkansas Head Start Association and Arkansas Head Start State Collaboration Office

An address delivered to EOA of Washington County Head Start/Early Head Start Pre-Service Training

August 20, 2009

The Rev. Roger Joslin, Vicar of All Saint’s Episcopal, Bentonville

Last week my wife Cindee and I visited Memphis for the first time. While Cindee was taking a much-needed nap, I decided to go for a run. I’ve found, over the years, that the best way for me to begin to understand the texture and composition of a new city is to take a long run through its streets. I began the run at our hotel on the north end of Main Street and headed south, occasionally making a detour to one side street or another. One such detour led me to the wide banks of the Mississippi, where I stood for a long moment, casting my gaze up and down the river, hoping to catch of glimpse of Huck and Jim, riding the raft of my own childhood dreams of far flung adventure.

Turning around and heading East along Union Avenue, I stumbled upon the famed Peabody Hotel. Despite wearing faded shorts and sweaty t-shirt, I couldn’t resist passing through the lobby and taking a glance at the lobby lounge with its echoes of Roaring Twenties opulence – still holding on to an elegance and grace that newer hotels can only dream of ever attaining.

I resumed my journey down Main Street and watched the neighborhood dissolve as I traveled further south. I crossed Beall Street, and sensed there desperation to hold on to what once was. They had recreated something of a blues scene, now carried on by earnest young white guitarists, who were clearly paying their dues, but whose knowledge, whose experience of the blues was a far cry from the blues lived and breathed by the likes of B.B. King or Muddy Waters.

The gentrification of South Main was moving slower than the area more uptown, although I could see half empty, but still hopeful condos reaching above the eager retail shops lining the street. And then, in a moment’s flash of recognition, I knew why my already tired legs had been steadily drawn to this part of the city. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a scene I recognized from my childhood. At first I couldn’t place it. It seemed reminiscent of the motels where my family had stayed on our rare vacations to Colorado or New Mexico. The structure seemed out of place in this century, with its splashy colors and bold shapes of 60’s architecture. And then I saw the sign – The Lorraine Motel – and I remembered. I descended the steps from Main Street toward the Lorraine and saw a balcony with a wreath hanging over the balustrades. In my minds eyes I could still see the image of the Rev. Martin Luther King, as he waved to supporters from this very balcony before turning to go inside. Later that day, on April 4, 1968 an assassin, perched across the street, gunned Dr. King down and the man who had dreamt the dream, who had been to the mountaintop was no longer with us.  I sat on the grass in front of the Lorraine and remembered the man and his dream “that little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” The dreamer may have past, but his dream has not.

Speaking at Dr. King’s memorial service, his friend and fellow civil rights activist, Ralph Abernathy, spoke these words from the book of Genesis, “And they said one to another, here cometh the dreamer. Let us slay him and he shall see what will become of his dreams.” These words spoken by Joseph’s brothers as they plotted against Joseph the dreamer, in the land of Dothan, were far more prescient than they could have imagined. What became of Joseph’s dream? Nothing less than the creation of the nation of Israel, the foundation of Judaism, of Islam, and of Christianity. More than half of the people on this planet today who call themselves religious owe their faith to Joseph’s dream.

And the dream of Martin Luther King, slain by yet another man who thought that if he killed the dreamer, he could kill dream, remained alive. And 40 years later, we live in a country that has changed more than I suspect even Dr. King could have imagined. A country in which a man can be elected president of the United States, even if his skin is black. The dream proved to be even bigger than the dreamer.

After Dr. King’s death, Ralph Abernathy launched the Poor People’s Campaign, reflecting Abernathy’s deep conviction that “the key to the salvation and redemption of this nation lay in its moral and humane response to the needs of its most oppressed and poverty-stricken citizens.” His aim in the spring of 1968 was to raise the nation’s consciousness of hunger and poverty. The Poor People’s Campaign led to systematic changes in U.S. policies and legislation, creating a national Food Stamp Program, a free meal program for low income children, assistance programs for the elderly, work programs, day care and health care programs for low income people across America.

And it was into this era, the world of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and the Great Society that the Head Start program was born. Those were heady days - days in which the greatest minds of a generation believed that poverty and injustice could be eradicated. We seem to live in a time now where many have abandoned that goal. We have lived through a decade in which poverty is commonly accepted as a necessary by product of the pursuit of great wealth. But as the economic collapse of the past year as shown us, the unbridled pursuit of wealth, will not lift up the rich and the poor, but instead leaves us all, collectively, much poorer.

LBJ grew up in a part of Texas where poverty and lack of opportunity were a way of life. He was poor and so was everyone around him. They lived in the Texas Hill country – a popular place for a second home now. But in LBJ’s youth it was a hard place to make a living. A hundred and fifty years ago German immigrants settled in the area because the green hills reminded them of their home in Germany. However, they brought cattle, which grazed the tall grass down to nothing. The rains came and washed away the thin layer of topsoil, leaving bare limestone hillsides, where nothing would grow but cedar and mesquite. Subsistence agriculture remained the only industry and goat herding didn’t pay much.

But LBJ had an advantage. His mother was educated and she taught young Lyndon to appreciate books, the arts, culture, history….in short, in an impoverished environment, Lyndon Johnson was given a head start. He knew from experience what benefits can accrue from early childhood education and exposure to a culture, richer and more varied than his neighbors could have known. It is quite natural to expect him to have championed the Head Start program.

I suspect that most of you here who remember LBJ or have studied his presidency, will likely only recall his involvement in and escalation of the war in Vietnam.

The tragedy of his presidency was that the war distracted him from his true mission, his true calling, his belief that poverty was a great evil and must be fought head on.

LBJ’s goal was to eliminate poverty. Lofty? Perhaps. Difficult? Certainly. Impossible? No! And you folks are still, valiantly manning the front line of the battlefield.

In its goal to eliminate poverty, one child at a time, America seems to have lost its dreamers. You, my friends, those of you who strive to give the children of America a head start, you are the keepers of the dream.

Thomas Carlisle said, “Blessed is the man that has found his work. Let him ask no other blessedness.”

What noble work you have been given!

I pray, let nothing distract you from the nobleness of your quest.

I’m a preacher. And even though I’m not a Baptist preacher. I sometimes feel compelled to talk about sin. I think that we have sinned when we have failed to live into what God, Creation, the Universe, Destiny (whatever you want to call her) has provided for us.

Some of you here make policy, and some of you make copies, and each and every one of you has a vital role to play in a mission that is ordained by God.

Labor Day is coming up. The economy is in the ditch and its going to be long climb out of it. Most people with a regular paycheck are glad to have one and intend to hang on to their jobs, maybe just for the sake of the paycheck alone. What a shame.

And if the best I could do was flip burgers at McDonalds, I might feel the same way. But your job, this amazing work you have been given, is to make it possible for everyone of your clients to have a chance to do something wonderful with their lives. You can give them the head start they need.

You are boots on the ground. Or perhaps more accurately, you are like Ginger Rogers, of whom another famous Texan, Governor Ann Richards, said, “She could do anything Fred Astaire did, only backwards, and in high heels.”

You are the warriors, the blessed few, still fighting the war on poverty. There is a quote variously attributed to Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and John Adams: I am a warrior, so that my son can be a farmer, so that his son can be a merchant, so that his son can be a poet.”

You are fighting, every day, so that our children can be lifted up from the mire of poverty. It may not happen in this generation. Just as the realization of the dream of Joseph took generation upon generation to come to fruition. But as Martin Luther King said, “We shall overcome because the arc of a moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” For over 40 years, longer than the Israelites wandered in the desert, Head Start has journeyed toward a dream. All of you may not see the realization of that dream. But you daily see a glimpse of the mountaintop in the faces of the children whose lives you have forever changed. We, as a people, will get to the promised land.

Labor Day will be here soon. And for all of you who labor in the fields of hope and justice and dreams, I would like to offer you this blessing.

God our creator, we are the work of your hands.

Guide us in our work, that we may do it, not for self alone,

but for the common good.

Make us alert to injustice, ready to stand in solidarity,

that there may be dignity for all in labor and in labor’s reward.

Prosper the work of our hands, prosper our handiwork.

And Joseph, patron of laborers and dreamer of dreams,

Pray for us.

Amen.

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