September 7, 1998
David Gergen, editor-at-large of "U.S. News & World Report," engages Robert Woodson, author of The Triumphs of Joseph, How Today’s Community Healers are Reviving Our Streets and Neighborhoods.
DAVID GERGEN: Bob, you’ve spent some years now out on the streets and barrios talking to people, and you found what you call community healers, who are providing an approach to poverty that in your view is not only better but is vastly different from what we know. Tell us about them.
ROBERT WOODSON, Author, "The Triumphs of Joseph:" Well, Leon Watkins is a community healer in South Central Los Angeles. The East Side Cryps gang was just terrorizing the neighborhood, forcing business and small business owners to leave food and money in the backs of their stores, graffiti all over the place. He posted "help wanted" signs all over the community for the leader of this gang, and then he met him one night in the back alley, two cars pull up, a fellow comes out, a gun in his waistband. Leon’s walking by himself. He says, I heard you’re looking for me. He says, what do you want? He says, I want to talk to you about your life. They sat on the trash can for three hours and talked. Within two weeks he had this young man in Bible study and within four weeks the whole gang had stopped fighting, and they began to work on behalf of their community. The power of one man, one healing agent, is an example of what is possible to accomplish.
DAVID GERGEN: How about Freddie Garcia, in San Antonio?
ROBERT WOODSON: San Antonio, Texas. Pastor Garcia and his wife, Nintha, were 30 years ago drug addicts, failed all of the psychiatric interventions, and came to Christ, and then turned their own lives and then their homes into a haven for drug addicts and took into their homes people that everyone else gave up on, and in the past 30 years they have sheltered over 13,500 hard core drug addicts, thieves, and cutthroats, an 80 percent success rate at a cost of $50 a day. They have para churches in 68 communities throughout this nation and foreign countries, starting with just a person of faith.
DAVID GERGEN: So these healers are people who have had terrible problems in their lives, prison perhaps, drugs, prostitution, and they’ve often found religious faith. And then they’ve become what’s called modern day Josephs.
ROBERT WOODSON: They really have. They have transformed. They haven’t been rehabilitated. They’ve been transformed, because when you rehabilitate someone, you take them back to their previous state. But when a person’s heart has been transformed, then they become a new person. And you take a rehabilitated person, put him into a debilitated environment, they become a recidivist. You take a transformed person, put him into a debilitated environment, they change the environment. And that’s what’s unique about these healing agents.
DAVID GERGEN: Why do you call them Josephs?
ROBERT WOODSON: Because when I was looking for a proper perspective to present this to the public and to understand it myself, I found it in the Book of Genesis, the story of Joseph. Joseph, as you know, is betrayed by his 12 brothers and sold into slavery, and they faked his death, and they were sold to the Ishmaelites and then went to the House of Pontify in Egypt, where he became the best slave, the best servant. He was falsely accused of attempted rape, thrown into jail, where he became the best prisoner. And when Pharaoh had dreams that none of his magicians and religious leaders could interpret, they called upon this 31 year old Hebrew boy, who interpreted his dreams, and Pharaoh appointed him overseer of Egypt and Joseph said, "I prospered and became fruitful in the land of my oppressor," and Egypt reined and ruled for 400 years until there arose a Pharaoh that knew not Joseph. I see in the person of Joseph someone who was in despair but not of despair, and a lot of my grassroots leaders who have been from horrible backgrounds, who’ve been falsely accused, who have stumbled and have been broken, but they refused to become a victim. Circumstances do not create victims. Victims create victims. And so, like Joseph, they have risen above their circumstance and refused to allow the external challenges in life to destroy them, and so they use their ability to be transformed as a beacon to others. And so they have beckoned others to responsibility.
DAVID GERGEN: Your book suggests very heavily – in fact, it really says that you’ve been swimming upstream, trying to make this argument in some parts of the black community and, indeed, some parts of the white community.
ROBERT WOODSON: It is. You have to understand that in the past 35 years we have defined America’s crisis as essentially racial and because of poverty, and as a consequence, we have spent about $5.3 trillion in the last 35 years on programs to aid the poor. 80 percent of it goes not to the poor, for those who serve poor people. They ask not which problems are solvable but which ones are fundable. So poverty and the poor really represent a commodity, so there are perverse incentives for maintaining people in poverty. So the people who serve poor people, who profit from that, see me as a threat. And you also have what I call racial grievance merchants, people who really market racial division and racial despair, because they can profit from it also, and so I have challenged these two groups, and I pray the price for it.
DAVID GERGEN: Do you honestly believe that they don’t – they care so little about changing the conditions of people in poverty that they are willing to overlook success stories?
ROBERT WOODSON: Well, Diedrich Bonhoffer, very interesting, in his letters from prison, made a very interesting point. When he says that the worst phenomena to challenge is not malice because malice can be confronted with violence, it is folly – is when someone really acts with benevolent intentions but has malevolent consequences. So a lot of the people, yes, are greedy, and they’re acting in corrupt ways, but most of them aren’t. They’re well meaning, good people, but they operate institutions that causes good people to do bad things. And so I think it was Thurow that said when someone comes to you with your best interest at heart, run for your life. And so many of these people actually injure with the helping hand, and they don’t even realize what they’re doing.
DAVID GERGEN: Where do you find your best allies?
ROBERT WOODSON: It’s very interesting. I find allies among many reconstructed liberals, people who were veterans of the civil rights movement and veterans of the poverty industry but who realized that what they have been doing isn’t working and are truly seeking alternatives and also among some reconstructed conservatives who indulge in what I – what Dr. King says that the strength of any nation or individual can be determined in part by that person’s willingness to be self-critical, that self-criticism is the highest form of maturity. And the people that I find most helpful are those who are able to look inside of themselves and forget their pasts and move into new directions.
DAVID GERGEN: You mentioned Mayor Steve Goldsmith of Indianapolis as an example of someone who has been innovative in this regard.
ROBERT WOODSON: When Mayor Goldsmith came into office, the first thing he did was set about privatizing public service, so he turned over control of six parks to local black churches so that the young people can be hired by contract. Not only is the work being done more efficiently, but also there’s a sense of ownership in the community so people don’t vandalize it, crime is down in those areas. He’s also privatized parts of public transit, so he is truly an innovator but who’s always trying to find ways. He has something called a front porch alliance, where churches and non-profits are coming together with business leaders to try to find ways of involving the faith community in the revitalization of the neighborhood. And there’s some people who don’t like that.
DAVID GERGEN: Robert Woodson, I wish we could go on. Thank you.
ROBERT WOODSON: Thank you, Dave.