A Day in the Life

I have owned a large iMac desk top computer for about six years and love it. A few days ago, an ominous sign briefly appeared on my computer screen with a lot of numbers and then vanished. Then my Microsoft Word program shut down and froze up. Not only was I unable to type anything into Word, I no longer had access to any of my Word files.

No problem, I thought, I would just call Apple Help. I have had good luck with Apple Help in the past. Someone will usually call you back within  a few minutes and they almost always speak with an American accent and know what they are doing. As usual I got a call back from a polite Apple tech woman, who listened to my problem, and to whom I gave permission to screen share. I love the screen share feature. The expert can see everything on your screen and lead you through the process of fixing what is wrong. Usually, my problem is solved effortlessly by the Apple tech person within minutes, and I move on with my day. Not this time. After directing me to try this and then do that to no avail, she checked with a supervisor and informed me that the problem was not a computer problem but a software problem–a Word problem– and since Word is a Microsoft product, not an Apple product, Apple would not be able to help me. I should call Microsoft.

Hey, I can handle that, I told her and immediately called Microsoft. I got a guy who informed me that he knew nothing about Apple computers and that I would have to go back to Apple. He said it could not be a software issue and had to be a computer issue.

Back to Apple Help. This time I got a guy who seemed to want to help me but after a few minutes admitted that if Microsoft could not help, then I would just have to accept that my Word program was permanently frozen and I would permanently lose access to my files. I pointed out that I had many thousand Word files on my computer that would be lost forever. This would likely result in my having a serious mental breakdown. He replied apologetically that nothing could be done.  I would just have to accept it.

Panic time. When I told Embry about my situation, she suggested I take the computer to the Apple store that I usually go to in Bethesda, Maryland, a neighboring suburb of DC. I clicked online to their website and called their number, a local 301 number. The person who answered asked me what state I lived in. When I told him Washington DC, he switched me to another local number, which rang but turned out to be a downtown Apple store, not the Bethesda office I wanted. The person I got this time said that yes, I could bring the computer in, convey it to them for recycling and buy a new one or that they could try to fix it, but probably would not be able to since a Microsoft software product was involved and hung up. I did not want to fight the traffic or try to find parking so I decided to stick with the Bethesda store.

 I called the Bethesda number again. This time a guy with a strong accent answered and asked me which country I was calling from. Which country? I was dialing a local area code number for goodness’ sake. I had no idea which country he was in, but by this time I had had enough and lost it. I screamed at the poor guy on the phone almost breaking down into tears. I explained the situation and told him that if someone could not figure out how to unfreeze my Word files, my whole life was ruined. I would lose several thousand, maybe several hundred thousand Word files dating all the way back to the 1980s when I purchased my first Apple II computer. Certainly, they had to be in the cloud someplace and that certainly someone could help me. He was very patient and after confirming that I lived in the United States in Washington DC. said he would make an appointment for me as I had requested at the Bethesda office—which miraculously he was able to accomplish. I was set for the next day at 10 in the morning.

Now while I like my 27-inch iMac desktop, it must weigh at least forty pounds, maybe even fifty. With great effort, I managed to lift it into a very large suitcase, put it into the back of our car and headed to the Bethesda office where I had a scheduled appointment at the Genius Bar. I staggered into the crowded store lugging the suitcase and checked in with one of the guys wearing an Apple shirt, who was greeting the customers. When asked to explain why I was there, I told him my sad story, to which he responded that I need not waste my time. Apple does not deal with customers who have Microsoft software programs, and that I should instead go to a Microsoft store.  This time I kept my composure. I was committed to seeing this through. Rather than break down in tears or let out a primal scream, I pleaded with him to allow me to see one of the geniuses even though I understood that it seemed to be a problem no one could solve. He reluctantly agreed though warned me again that it was futile. I could, however, leave my broken computer at the store and buy a new one.

After waiting patiently for about 20 minutes at the Genius Bar, I perked up when a tall guy probably in his late 20s and wearing an Apple tee shirt and jeans meandered over and agreed to take a look.

In about five minutes he had figured out what was wrong and in less than ten more minutes, had fixed it. I wanted to give him a bear hug. All that was required was deleting the old Word program and replacing it with an updated version. I celebrated by buying myself a new iPhone 15 (My old one could no longer charge.) and drove home smiling the whole way.

Just another day in the life (of an old codger).


Why are Mainline Christian Churches Dying in America?

This post is based on a forum presentation on April 14 this year which I lead at All Souls Episcopal Church in Washington, where Embry and I have been members for over 40 years. The statistics I cite are from Pew and Gallup surveys and from research conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI).

I could be classified as a “lifer” or what is commonly referred to as a “cradle Episcopalian.” When I grew up in Nashville in the 1950s, I did not know anyone who did not attend church regularly or was not an active member of a Christian church. My parents attended Christ Church, the downtown Episcopal Church, and all my friends were either “traditional Protestants”—mainly Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Methodists—or Southern Baptists. I had no friends who were either Jews or Catholics and certainly not any atheists. In those days churches were also segregated by race, though no one thought much about that. It was just the way things were.

My, how the country has changed!

“Mainline” denominations are the Protestant churches that began in the Reformation, some of whose members immigrated to the United States beginning in the 16th Century. The “Seven Sisters,” which are the dominant, mainline Protestant denominations are the United Church of Christ (which was a successor to the Puritans), the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Church (not to be confused with the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention), the Disciples of Christ, the United Methodist Church, and the Presbyterian Church.

No one is certain exactly where the term “mainline” originated, but these denominations mostly use traditional liturgies, over the years have generally been middle of the road theologically, and for the most part have attracted middle and upper middle class (white) people and elites. Until recently parishioners have been evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats and the denominations have steered away from politics. These are now the churches that have been losing the most members; and if the present trends continue, more  will fail.

Today the United Methodist Church continues to be the largest mainline church with over 5.7 million members in 2022, followed by the Evangelical Lutheran (2.9 million, note that even though it is called “evangelical,” it is considered mainline. The Missouri Synod is the Lutheran evangelical wing.), the Episcopal Church (1.4 million), and the Presbyterians (1.1 million). Here are the losses in just the last ten years experienced by the Seven Sisters:

The mainline denominations stand in contrast to the (white) evangelical church. It is important to point out that there are many differences within what I am referring to as the evangelical church. There are members of denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention with over 13 million members, the largest denomination by far, but also to a growing number of independent, nondenominational churches, some of which are mega churches with thousands of members. There are also the Pentecostal and Holiness Churches, where it is not unusual for people to speak in tongues, and the growing “Praise Churches.” A significant percentage of people in these churches are part of the MAGA movement and support Donald Trump. Theologically most evangelicals view the Bible as the inerrant word of God and believe that to be a true Christian you must have been “saved” by Jesus as evidenced by a personal religious experience and publicly take Jesus as your savior.

Today evangelicals vastly outnumber traditional Protestants. By some estimates over  25% of the adult population in the United States in 2020 were white evangelicals (and 5% Black evangelicals, who are very different politically) compared to just 10% for traditional Protestants, even lower for the mainliners. The gap is probably higher today. Good heavens! I grew up thinking that mainline churches were dominant, not evangelicals–or fundamentalist churches, as we used to call them. There are more than twice as many evangelicals as traditional Protestants, and there are also  a lot of Catholics, who are estimated to comprise about 20% of the adult population. The mainliners are by far the smallest group of all—and losing members the fastest. However, while traditional Protestant denominations have been hit the hardest, all churches have experienced declines, even the evangelicals. (The Southern Baptists numbered over 15 million in 2005.) For the first time in over 100 years, church membership in all religions (Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others) is below 50% of the population. A 2020 Gallup Poll  showed church membership dropping from 76% of the American population in 1976 to 47% and is probably below 45% today.

In the last few years, two new categories have popped up; “Nones” and “Spiritual But Not Religious,” or the SBNRs, which have increased to about 20%  of the adult population in 2024.

What is going on? Here is my take:

  1. Religion and culture have always been intertwined, and the United States has become more secular. When I was growing up in the 1950s, religion was part of the weekly routine of everyone I knew. You went to church on Sunday morning because that is just what people did. In Nashville church membership was part of the social culture. That is not the case anymore. Soccer games now happen on Sunday mornings, along with golf and tennis matches, family outings, and many other diversions, and there is no longer a stigma for not attending church. My guess is that there were many in the past who attended church who did not get much out of the experience and were not particularly religious people but were members since they felt they had to be because it was required socially. They are now staying home or doing something fun. Unless church attendance can compete with the other options, don’t count on getting the refugees back any time soon.
  2. The split between the mainline churches and the evangelicals is driven in part by race, social class, and place in society. The United States has been divided by race and class throughout its history and today is no different. While there are exceptions, I doubt that you are going to find many PhDs attending white evangelical churches and that race, education, type of work, income, and wealth tend to be indicators of what church people end up attending—or even whether they attend church. Many years ago Embry and I attended a “camp meeting” in Covington GA where the main preacher for the week was a youngish Southern Baptist minister who to my astonishment was preaching about inclusiveness. Toward the end of the week, he surprised his congregation of several hundred people with these remarks: “I’ll bet there are many in this gathering who will say that based on what I have been preaching that since we are all Christians there is not that much difference between us.” People nodded. “Well, I am here to set the record straight right now. There are big  differences and don’t you forget it.” Everyone suddenly perked up. What was he going to say? “I am a Southern Baptist and proud of it. A Southern Baptist is a Christian who has been washed.” People nodded. “Any Methodists in the audience? A Methodist is a Southern Baptist who can read.” A few chuckles. “Any Presbyterians? More hands went up. “A Presbyterian is a Methodist who has gone to college….and an Episcopalian is a Presbyterian whose investments turned out all right!” This brought the house down. Everyone knew exactly what he was talking about.
  3. A challenge facing many mainline churches is that some believe mainline churches have become too secular, too liberal, and too “woke.” Many conservatives say that the problem is that many mainline churches have abandoned their Christian heritage and have become wishy washy with humanist-like values tracking very closely with secular, liberal values. The charges hardly apply to all mainline churches but to enough to having some truth. If these churches do not believe that heaven and hell are very real and that if you do not believe that Christ is your only ticket to heaven and salvation, why bother? Furthermore, mainline churches have become too involved in social justice issues beginning with the civil rights movement starting in the 1960s (which Embry and I have both been part of). Well, I for one plead guilty as charged. I have trouble saying the ancient creeds and believe that the central message of Christianity is “love your neighbor as yourself,” a message which has strong implications for social justice. I would describe myself as more of a universalist, who likes “bells and smells” and most of the solemn traditions of the Episcopal Church, applauds the progressive posture of the Episcopal church on sexuality, racial and social justice issues, and sees God acting through many faiths: one destination, many pathways. As to theology, the saying goes that Episcopalians tend to check their hat at the door when they enter a church, not their brains. There is more wiggle room here as to belief than in some other traditions. At the same time, many people I know have become part of the SBNR exodus, including many of my classmates at Union Seminary in New York which I attended in the late 1960s. Many of us who remain church members today are hanging on by our fingernails.
  4. The exodus of church members, while a threat is also an opportunity. One thing is for sure: If church membership continues to plummet, a whole bunch of churches are going to be in trouble. Many church leaders are struggling to find new ways to remain faithful to the central message of the Christian faith and remain relevant to the secular world we live in today. We Homo sapiens on the planet Earth are spiritual creatures. We ask the fundamental questions of why: Why are we here, what is the meaning of life, why all the suffering and pain, and how do we deal with death? Formal religion has been the vehicle we humans have created to try to answer these questions and to create communities where we herd animals can explore these questions together. This aspect of religion will not change because of secularization. What I believe needs to happen is for Christians to adapt to our changing world by emphasizing the fundamental message of unconditional love and acceptance by a loving God and by welcoming all who believe that there are mysteries in life that cannot be explained by science to join us in our feeble effort to live good lives, strive to make the world better, and to make sense out of the human condition and the spiritual grounding of what it means to be fully human. Afterall, the Pew and Gallup surveys show that of those who answer the question about belief in God, only about two percent say they are atheists and only about five percent say they are agnostic, and these numbers have remained about the same over the past several decades. People have not given up on religion. They are just looking for something more authentic and meaningful than what is generally available. Those churches that figure out ways to do this while remaining true to their traditions will navigate these troubled waters. Of those that don’t, many will fail.












The Crisis in Affordable Housing: Why It Is Happening and What To Do About It

Beginning in the mid 1970s, I have been involved in developing affordable housing (and seniors, market rate housing). I started my housing career working for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington as the project manager for a huge, mixed income and mixed age community to be located on 624 acres in Prince George’s County outside of Washington, D.C. That development never got built because of zoning opposition, but St Mary’s Court did. A 140-unit, HUD Section 202 affordable housing community for seniors, which opened in the late 1970s, Saint Mary’s Court is located at the edge of the GW campus and within a five-minute walk to the Kennedy Center. The community serves a diverse community of low income seniors, provides a full range of services, and remains my favorite affordable housing community. This was followed by a three year stint at the National Corporation for Housing Partnerships where I was the Director of Development, responsible for developing about a dozen   low income housing communities in the DC/Baltimore region, followed by 25 years at Howell Associates, a consulting company which I formed, which performed market studies and helped affordable housing and market-rate seniors housing throughout the country get built and occupied. (In 1998 the company was sold to ZA Consulting.) The last couple of decades have been devoted mainly to lecturing on affordable housing finance at the University of Maryland, teaching a seminar on affordable housing as an adjunct professor in the Honors College at George Washington University, and serving on several affordable housing boards. It has been, as they say, quite a ride. Here is what I have learned:

  1. The affordable housing crisis in this country is really an income crisis. While in 2023, some gains were made toward narrowing the gap between the rich and everyone else, beginning in 1980, with the emphasis on deregulation and tax cuts, the median household income adjusted for inflation has increased only modestly while strong increases have occurred for the top 10 percent of households with extreme increases for the top one percent—and the most for the top .1 percent. The rich are getting richer while others are struggling just to stay even. About 25 percent of all households in the U.S. had incomes in 2022 below $35,000. These are the households most in need of financial support and have been the focus of most HUD housing initiatives. Good luck on finding an affordable, market rate rental apartment with an income of $35,000 when the top rent you should pay should be no more than 30% of your monthly income including all utilities or about $875/month. The lowest rents are twice that amount in most large cities and almost triple that in the Washington metro area where the lowest rents for most two-bedroom apartments start at over $2,000. Reducing income inequalities should be a top priority of our country going forward. Increasing the minimum wage to a living wage of something closer to $25/hour is important and would contribute to increasing the pay of those working in the service sector and entry level jobs. These initiatives remain highly controversial, impact the economy, affect inflation, and are unlikely to happen without Democrats controlling the Congress and the Presidency, which would also appear to be a long shot. In 2024 we will be lucky to keep our democracy.
  2. We have the basic tools to address the affordable housing challenge. The major tool available today for helping people with low incomes afford decent housing is the federal “Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program.” The Section 8 program began in 1974 in response to the housing crisis at that time, the failures of public housing, and the civil disturbances of the late 1960s and early 1970s when cities were burning. Initially HUD awarded Section 8 contracts to private developers of affordable housing allowing developers to charge market rents and providing subsidies to cover the difference between the contract rent of the unit and the rent paid by the low income household. Under the Section 8 program, the renter household pays no more than 30 percent of its income for rent and utilities. (These were the type of properties I worked on in the 1970s and early 1980s.) The program produced well over a million units during its 10-year life but was discontinued in the mid 1980s due to high costs. Many developers who initially signed 20-year contracts to keep the community in the Section 8 Program have opted out as the time limits have expired and neighborhoods have gentrified. When project-based Section 8 was terminated, it was replaced by the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program. Administered by local housing authorities, vouchers allow low income households to live in market rate, middle income housing wherever they want. They pay only 30 percent of their income for rent and utilities. The vouchers pay the landlord the additional amount needed to cover the market rent for the unit. There are many issues affecting the Housing Choice Voucher Program. Funds come from the federal budget and need to be reauthorized every two years; and most public housing agencies have very long wait lists. In some states and cities landlords are not required to count vouchers as income when determining eligibility or required to lease units to voucher holders if they do not want to. While over two million low income households now have vouchers (five million people in these households benefit), only about 25 percent of those eligible (with incomes below 50 percent of area median) are served by the program due to lack of sufficient federal funding. Many voucher holders end up staying in low income neighborhoods because they have difficulty finding suitable units in middle class communities. Some are not even able to use the voucher. While the program is not perfect, it is the best tool we have in enabling low income residents to find housing they can afford. Making Housing Choice Vouchers an entitlement like Medicaid, TANF, or SNAP (food stamps) would make a huge difference though it would require a lot more money from the federal government. (SNAP would probably be the best model since the first two are governed largely by state rules and regulations.)
  3. Building more housing remains an important goal. The country is experiencing a housing shortage due in part to covid-related factors, NIMBYism, higher interest rates, and lack of properly zoned sites to permit higher density housing. This applies to all types of housing but especially to low income housing, which invariably rallies the NIMBY crowd to show up in protest. Building new housing is also very expensive and faces huge challenges for the properties to be feasible and to attract capable developers. The main financing vehicle today for multifamily housing is the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program (LIHTC), which raises equity capital from wealthy investors (mainly banks) by providing a dollar tax credit for every dollar invested. This program is not administered by HUD but rather by the U.S. Department of Treasury in partnership with state housing finance agencies, which issue tax exempt bonds to cover a portion of the costs. The program is very complex and can be described as the “real estate lawyers’ and consultants’ relief act,” but has been around long enough so that a cottage industry has evolved, which produces over 100,000 units of affordable multifamily housing annually. Some of the major developers are nonprofit corporations, which unlike what happened in many earlier HUD housing programs, are allowed to earn substantial developer’s fees, enabling these groups to remain going concerns. The LIHTC initiative, however, does not provide “deep subsidies” like the Section 8 program, but rather requires a property to discount rents so that tiers of pricing are targeted to households with incomes between 30%-60% of area median incomes. Very low income households with incomes less than 30% of AMI still need vouchers (from the housing authority) for them to afford to live in these units. Finally, the equity from investors and the mortgage financing from state housing finance agencies are usually not enough to cover all the costs involved. When this is the case, state or local jurisdictions are often needed to provide “gap financing,” which covers the difference between total development costs and the funds provided by investors and housing finance agencies. There is also much discussion today regarding the need to encourage adding new units in existing communities by allowing homeowners to construct “granny flats” in back yards, to add basement apartments, to replace single family units with duplex units where space permits, to encourage infill multifamily housing, and for new suburban developments to be higher density and mixed use. All are important pieces of the puzzle. While taken together they are not enough to “solve” the problem, they are making an important dent.
  1. Homelessness is the stickiest challenge of all. There are other reasons for homelessness besides not having sufficient funds to pay rent. The movement to shut down mental institutions began in the late 1960s. For many years most of these large institutions have ceased to exist. The idea was to replace these prison-like “hospitals” with community-based, smaller, health centers and group homes. Some of this has happened but not nearly enough to compensate for the vast number of beds that were eliminated. Typically, about two-thirds of homeless people are single persons, more men than women, and many with serious mental health or substance abuse issues. They need more than just housing. For many years the main initiative for providing housing for people with mental or emotional challenges was also to provide “transitional housing” where intensive social services were involved to help get people back on their feet to be able to live independently.  About ten years ago this initiative was phased out and replaced by “Housing First.” Under this approach, the goal is to get homeless people into permanent housing first and then provide social work and mental health support. For a number of years, I have served on the board of Housing Up, a faith-based nonprofit which provided transitional housing for many years and now under the Housing First initiative employs close to a hundred social workers serving approximately a thousand clients. They help homeless families find market rate housing (paid for by a housing grant from the DC government), and then stick with the family to help them access the services they need, find better paying jobs, help their kids in school, and, if needed, help the parent deal with mental health or substance abuse issues. The main failing of this program is that it is supposed to last only for only a year, assuming that by the end of the year the family will be back on its feet. Wishful thinking. The DC government is rethinking how to deal with the problem since it is now evident that one year is not enough to get people back to work. The District, however, does offer a similar program (“Permanent Supportive Housing”) which has no time limit and provides housing for those with mental, emotional and physical disabilities preventing them from working. In the meantime, tent encampments persist in the city, and the number of homeless families and individuals continues to increase. There is no silver bullet which will fully address this challenge, but surely there needs to be more permanent housing options to replace tents and more than one year in a conventional “Housing First” apartment before being tossed out. Shelters are available for those in desperation but do not have sufficient beds to meet the need, must be cleared out during the day, and are not pleasant for anyone or a long term solution.

We should be able to meet this challenge. We have decades of affordable housing experience and have tried many approaches starting with traditional public housing, evolving into project-based Section 8 housing, then to Housing Choice Vouchers,  to LIHTC properties, and from transitional housing to “Housing First.” Each initiative has had strengths and weaknesses. Each has had successes and failures, and yet the problems persist and are even getting worse. This is due largely to our society, which has become increasingly unequal financially. Social Darwinism continues to be alive and well. The housing crisis will not be fixed in a vacuum. Before the fix can happen, we must address the inequality issue where the very rich are getting even richer and the rest of us are holding our own at best while way too many are slipping. Part of the solution is more federal and state money—lots of it. But this won’t happen until we figure out a way for the rich and superrich to pay their fair share of taxes. This, of course, will play out in the political arena, and who knows how that is going to end up as our country is peering into an abyss as the 2024 elections approach.