The 11th Commandment
Like many compelling ideas, Love Your Neighbor revealed itself in a vision. In January 1994, Jim Ward and six long-time friends made a pilgrimage to the Super Bowl, as they had done each of the previous thirteen years. In his Atlanta hotel room sometime during the wee hours after the Dallas Cowboys hogtied the Buffalo Bills and the postgame revelry had petered out, Ward had an epiphany.
"I woke up in the middle of the night with the phrase Love your neighbor going through my head," recalls Ward, director of Dade County's Department of Human Services. "The thing kept pounding at me. I could see it everywhere. I had visions of the president closing the State of the Union address with 'God bless America and love your neighbor.' I saw the blimp going over the Super Bowl spelling out 'Love Your Neighbor.' I saw the Pope saying his homily at the Vatican and concluding with 'Love your neighbor.' CEOs saying 'Love your neighbor' at the end of corporate meetings. I thought: This is wonderful. I wonder why nobody thought of it before. Wait'll I get back to Miami. I thought the whole city would change overnight and everyone would grab it and run with it."
The next morning, as Ward and his slightly groggy buddies nursed their coffees in the restaurant of the Quality Inn, the topic wasn't Buffalo running back Thurman Thomas's two embarrassing fumbles or then-Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson's second consecutive Super Bowl win. Instead the men sat and listened to Ward enthuse about his plans to transform the world with a three-word slogan. "They thought it was a little hokey," Ward admits. Later that evening, though, after Ward had regaled their server at the Outback Steakhouse with his new idea, he received his first positive feedback: The waitress bade them farewell with a hearty "Y'all come back and see us -- and love your neighbor!"
Barely two years later, Ward's wee-hours inspiration has sprouted from a conceptual seed into a creeping vine whose tendrils reach to the very corners of Dade County, and beyond. Seemingly everyone -- from political and entertainment heavyweights to unwitting county taxpayers -- is doing something to promote it.
There are the ubiquitous red bumper stickers emblazoned with the three magic words, the signs and banners festooning Miami International Airport and Bayside. The three bright red Metrobuses that ply their routes bearing no identification other than "Love Your Neighbor" painted in English, Spanish, and Creole on their sides.
But those are mere hints, the first tiny inroads into the public consciousness. "This is everybody's campaign!" exclaims Claudia Becerra. The media coordinator for the Miami Coalition for a Safe and Drug-Free Community, Becerra donates several hours of her time each week to promote the slogan. She is one of the leaders of the 50-member Love Your Neighbor Steering Committee, formed by Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin in mid-1994 in order to come up with the ways and means to "saturate our community with the thought, phrase and spirit of 'Love Your Neighbor,'" in the words of a memo written by Sister O'Laughlin.
While no public money is allotted for the campaign, its pervasiveness is due in part to Dade officials' enthusiastic use of county resources to boost visibility. And that doesn't sit too well with some county employees who face cutbacks or increased workloads owing to recent budget tightening.
James A. Ward truly believes that loving your neighbor can make a difference in his community's well-being. So why shouldn't the campaign be considered just as important as any of the other social services -- everything from drug treatment and battered women's shelters to services for the elderly and mentally retarded -- that his department provides?
"You've got to sense this and feel it," says the 67-year-old former Jacksonville police officer, who has worked in the Department of Human Services for 21 years, the past three as director. Tanned and trim in a starched white shirt and tie, he has a vaguely mournful expression reminiscent of the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz. "If you're in traffic on I-95 and someone cuts you off and you see 'Love Your Neighbor' on a bumper sticker, you can put your mind on that and feel a little less stress. If you could get the criminal element to read Love Your Neighbor bumper stickers ten minutes of the day, that's ten minutes he wouldn't be figuring out how to rob you. If we can develop in this community a Love Your Neighbor spirit, every nook and cranny will prosper."
Such was the level of certainty that inspired Ward to press his neighborly agenda when he returned from Atlanta back in the winter of 1994. He didn't have a clear idea of exactly how it should be done, but he knew he wanted the words on everyone's lips and the feeling in everyone's heart.
A friend who knew a printer ordered up a thousand bumper stickers. On his office computer, Ward created his own Love Your Neighbor stationery. He wrote letters seeking support from the Pope, the president, Attorney General Janet Reno, and the president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters ("I thought it would be great if we could have bumper stickers on all those trucks"). Hillary Rodham Clinton sent back a boilerplate response thanking him for "taking the time to make your voice count." Neither His Holiness nor the Teamsters boss replied, but Ward says Reno, a Miami native, called from Washington to pat him on the back. (A spokeswoman at the Attorney General's office says she can't confirm that Reno called Ward; her boss shies away from endorsing specific citizens' initiatives, the aide adds.)
Ward had requested a meeting with Dade County Schools Superintendent Octavio Visiedo to discuss ways that Love Your Neighbor might be integrated into the school day. They never did meet, but word about the campaign spread, and in March 1994, according to Ward, 62 schools requested about 1000 bumper stickers each, with plans to encourage students to perform "a good deed" of some sort in exchange for a sticker. He wasn't prepared for an order like that, so he was happily surprised when the Miami Coalition for a Safe and Drug-Free Community offered to help. "They asked me how I was doing for bumper stickers," he recalls. "I said, 'I'm in deep trouble.'" The coalition doesn't raise money for the campaign, says executive director Marilyn Culp, but acts as a clearinghouse for private monetary contributions, offers of services, and suggestions about ways to expand public awareness, as well as distribution of items such as bumper stickers, lapel pins, T-shirts, and bookmarks, all bearing the slogan.
The phrase was beginning to ring in an increasing number of influential Dade County ears. From the Miami Coalition's involvement grew the steering committee, chaired by Ray Goode, Ryder's senior vice president for public affairs. At the urging of Ward and Commissioner Betty Ferguson, the Metro Commission passed a resolution "[asking] the Host Committee of the Summit of the Americas to adopt the phrase 'Love Your Neighbor' as the official slogan of the Summit." Miami International Airport flashed Love Your Neighbor on its electronic billboard. Miami Herald publisher Dave Lawrence praised Ward in one of his Sunday columns. ("Sure, this is all probably naive," Lawrence wrote. "A good naive. The optimists among us make the difference in a future that includes everyone.") And Miami City Manager Cesar Odio asked city employees to display the bumper stickers on city vehicles and on their personal cars. In a memo to department heads and administrators, he endorsed the campaign as a way to "enhance Miami's 'caring city' image."
County Manager Armando Vidal, too, wrote to his department directors, informing them that Ward would soon be calling to discuss ways each department could participate in "our" Love Your Neighbor campaign. "As you can see," Vidal concluded, "the expanse of this campaign is only limited by our imagination . . . . Being the largest governmental entity in the community, it is imperative that we continue to take a leadership role in promoting this effort and developing a Love Your Neighbor spirit."
The county manager continues to support the concept and to encourage all employees to join in promoting it. "We ought to take time to think and act from day to day in accordance with the spirit of goodwill," says Assistant County Manager Dean Taylor, Ward's supervisor.
"Love Your Neighbor" is printed on much of Metro's stationery, and outgoing mail is rubber-stamped with the little red reminder. The Metro-Dade Transit Authority already had three buses painted red for use as shuttles while the new Brickell Bridge was being built. When Ward called, transit director Chester Colby realized he could make his Love Your Neighbor contribution by simply painting the slogan in white over the red background instead of repainting the vehicles in the traditional Metrobus colors.
Ward's department, long known as the Department of Human Resources, had been home for several years to an informal singing group called the DHR Ensemble. This past October, when the agency was renamed Human Services, Ward changed the choir's name, too A to the Love Your Neighbor Ensemble.
It didn't stop there; the private sector was doing its own neighborly deeds. A local check-printing company now offers to add the phrase to checks. (Ward has his printed this way). Two local video production companies donated their services to produce a Love Your Neighbor public-service announcement that will air on local TV stations as soon as next week. If the steering committee raises enough money, 60 billboards will bear the Love Your Neighbor message. And several local musicians, including Nestor Torres, have agreed to perform on a Love Your Neighbor music video: "It'll be kind of like a 'We Are the World' vibe," says Richard Serotta, operations director for Performing Arts for Community and Education (PACE) and a steering committee member. "Lots of ethnicity, from Seminole Indians to Haitian and Spanish musicians. It's one of those snowball-type things," adds Serotta, who plans to produce the video. "It started with Jim Ward, and then all of a sudden there were thousands of bumper stickers, and people keep coming on board."
Matters got to the point where Claudia Becerra and her fellow steering-committee volunteers were overwhelmed. "We've sent out 250,000 bumper stickers and mailings," Becerra says. (Ward estimates the total number of stickers distributed at 500,000.) "All the time people call with different ideas -- I really can't take care of all of it."
So Ward brought in a staffer to manage the Love Your Neighbor campaign. Cary De Le centsn was moved from her former position as Victim Services coordinator. Her newly created job -- special assistant to the director -- carried a small raise, from $29,200 to $30,500 annually.
Ward and De Le centsn have fielded inquiries and bumper-sticker orders from St. Louis, Denver, Mobile, and Macon. The citizens of Macon, in particular, have cottoned to the idea of Love Your Neighbor.
"Macon needed something like this for a long time," says Bill Cutler, executive director of the nonprofit Macon-Bibb Housing Association and one of the forces behind Love Your Neighbor's Georgia branch. "Y'all have got a jewel of a man in Jim Ward." When an aide to Macon's mayor showed him some written material Ward had sent, Cutler says, he knew immediately that Love Your Neighbor was just what the Macon metro area of 300,000 needed. "We have problems here like everybody else," he explains. "Macon is about 50-50 black-white, and we have a lot of people who want to blame everything on racial differences and strife and what I call the invisible wall. I saw Love Your Neighbor as a good way to break down that wall and just be more civil to each other."
Ward was the guest of honor and speaker (along with Macon's mayor and a Bibb County commissioner) at a press conference in Macon this past June to officially kick off that city's Love Your Neighbor campaign. Besides the speeches, the event featured the ceremonial placing of bumper stickers on state troopers' cars and other government vehicles.
The Macon media have been supportive of the campaign. Cutler says his main problem right now is "grubbing for money" A donations to cover costs for bumper stickers (he says 30,000 public school students alone are clamoring for theirs), lapel pins and bookmarks, and signs and billboards. Macon TV stations are ahead of Miami in one area: A donated public service announcement has already begun airing.
This past September Macon religious leaders organized a citywide ecumenical Love Your Neighbor worship service. (The host, Pastor Bill Willis, credits James Ward for helping him recover from an alcohol addiction twenty years ago.) Georgia Gov. Zell Miller sent a Scripture-quoting letter to be read at the service: "I am so gratified that a program of reaching out to each other in understanding and love is being conducted in a Georgia city, and I hope that word of your efforts will . . . create a momentum that will cover the entire state." After the service, a local TV reporter interviewed an unidentified Love Your Neighbor volunteer who declared, "We're counting on it being all over Macon -- to lower the crime rate like it has in Miami."
Needless to say, the local Love Your Neighbor blizzard hasn't lowered the crime rate here, at least as far as anyone can tell.
And unless it's backed up with actions, its chances of dramatically affecting the collective psyche may be dim. "You get into the problem where Love Your Neighbor becomes a watchword like Just Say No," says Paul Cromwell, a professor of criminology and sociology at the University of Miami. "If you've just got the slogan, you've got nothing. You've got to get people to actually be truly concerned for their neighbor."
Though even the most dedicated Love Your Neighbor adherents aren't claiming any miracles, they point to the volume of positive response they've seen. "The whole idea of Love Your Neighbor is just to have everyone know about it, to feel it and eventually to live it," contends the Miami Coalition's Marilyn Culp. "It kind of changes the way you feel. We've had neighbors calling, saying, 'We've had ongoing feuds and we thought maybe this would help.' It does give you a sense that 'I really care about you, I care what happens to you.'"
It could be said that loving their neighbors is part of the job for Department of Human Services employees. And in that light, some DHS staffers resent institutionalized love being thrust on them via staff meetings and frequent written and verbal reminders from their bosses. "Every couple of months they call us all together and give us a pep talk," says one worker. '"Love your neighbor and blah-blah-blah and Love Your Neighbor and blah-blah-blah and Love your neighbor.' It reminds me of a father gathering the family around the kitchen table and telling them, 'Now we're all going to get along and be a close-knit family.'"
Contends another staffer: "It's just a distraction. We have waiting lists for services with thousands of names. Don't love them, give them services."
"You can give me the benefits and just like me," jokes another.
"As nice as Love Your Neighbor is in the abstract, it's also oppressive," asserts a DHS employee. "It's really out of hand. We're forced to put bumper stickers on our cars -- and they go around to check bumpers."
Some staffers also point out that the dozen or so members of the Love Your Neighbor Ensemble are all DHS employees who practice and perform during paid working hours and who make use of county buses to travel to and from their performances. They also assert that their own department, which operates with a $98 million annual budget, is top-heavy with managers earning high salaries (Ward earns more than $125,000 per year; deputy director Mae Bryant almost $106,000; director of office administration Carmen Morrina $79,000) -- money that would be better spent to help the agency's needy clients.
None of the disgruntled workers would allow their names to be published in this story. Observed one: "It's medieval what would happen to us if our names were printed."
Ward says none of his employees are forced to participate, but why shouldn't they want to? "This is something that's being done as a result of the approval of the previous and current county manager, and if I had the money to appoint a half-dozen people to work on the campaign I'd do it," he insists. "I think we need it a helluva lot worse than a lot of other things we're doing."
On a sunny late-winter afternoon, a dozen top-ranking police and fire officials from around Dade are engaged in a rib-eating contest in the parking lot outside the Kenny Rogers Roasters restaurant on Bird Road. A giant red billboard with LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR spelled out in giant white letters has been wheeled into the lot. Red and white balloons bob above the long tables, and the Rocky theme blares from strategically placed loudspeakers as the contestants somewhat sheepishly chow down on their platefuls of pork. The few hundred onlookers and members of the media who have assembled to witness the spectacle are eagerly awaiting a glimpse of the restaurant's namesake, country music star Kenny Rogers, who is emceeing the festivities along with his brother Randy.
The Rib-A-Thon is the first of many that will be held nationally to introduce the chain's new "honey back ribs." Roasters is billing the promotions as Love Your Neighbor Rib-A-Thons A part of the Rogers brothers' "grassroots approach" to marketing, according to public relations director Robyn Perlman, who says the slogan came to the company's attention after Ward contacted the local charity Neighbors Helping Neighbors, which was participating in local Rib-A-Thons. (South Florida Roasters stores have donated $10,000 from Rib-A-Thon revenues to Neighbors Helping Neighbors and have catered 1200 meals to other nonprofits, according to Perlman).
"It's a good concept," Kenny Rogers himself says of Love Your Neighbor. "Our goal is to help take it national. It's a way to contribute to the community."
Kenny isn't singing today, but the Love Your Neighbor Ensemble is. Choir director Wendell Wimberly and the twelve DHS employees have arrived, as they do for most of their public performances, in one of the Love Your Neighbor-emblazoned Metrobuses. They sing a song called "Love Your Neighbor," a syncopated tune that sounds like a street-corner a cappella number, and "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)," to which the singers have added verses in Spanish. In other appearances they've sung gospel songs; they also have in their repertoire a spirited version of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Wimberly, the tall, slender manager of DHS's Opa-locka Senior Focal Point program for the elderly, has directed the choir for about three years, since back when it was just an informal group that sang at Christmas parties. Of the criticism of the group's liberal use of county time and resources, he acknowledges, "There were some feelings, but time has dealt with that."
Nor does Wimberly, who also plays trumpet in the 13th Army Band (he's a first sergeant), see any conflict in the fact that the choir sings religious hymns, which some employees believe violates the separation between church and state. The ensemble has become an envoy for Love Your Neighbor, he says, and he believes his job is to produce polished, inspirational music. "As long as we are dealing with staff and employee morale and those things that are good for the department, Mr. Ward believes that is time well spent," Wimberly concludes.
Indeed he does. "They are doing their job but also trying to support Love Your Neighbor to make the community a better place," Ward says. "When [people] say they're not doing the jobs they're supposed to be doing, it's almost akin to saying the U.S. Army and Navy bands, when they practice, aren't doing the jobs they're supposed to, because they're supposed to be out shooting people.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.