One of the requirements of the class is to undertake a creation care project. Something tangible that we do every week. We are to document our project with photographs, describe our weekly work, and write a prayer each week - all of which is shared with the class.
I have chosen picking up garbage in the area surrounding Caldwell as my creation care project. Each time that I head bout to pick up trash, I start on the campus of the church itself. Food wrappers, bottle caps, and cigarette boxes are the things I find most frequently. But last week, I found a pair of sneakers tossed onto the side lawn of the church. I gathered them up and put them next to the curb in case someone came back for them.
One week I found 75 pennies under some leaves and a candy wrapper. I know there were 75 because I picked them up, cleaned them off, counted them, and put them into the church offering plate that week.
I have found items of clothing, a broken doll, a small pink lock in the shape of a heart, a magnifying glass, and lots of other interesting and unexpected things.
There have also been broken things. Empty things. Abandoned things. Like beer bottles and soda cans. Straws - so many straws. Cigarette butts.
We leave a lot of garbage behind, people. Tons of it.
During the first weeks of this practice, I spent a lot of my time out there angry. I was angry about how much trash there is on the streets of this city I live in. Angry about the wasted opportunities to recycle bottles and cans a paper. Angry that people didn't have enough mental and intellectual bandwidth to take their trash home with them and dispose of it properly.
But then as a class we began to think and talk about people who are homeless. Living in public parks. In parking lots. Under trees. In places where there are no garbage containers. At moments in their lives when they are hoping to make it through the night alive, they are not likely to be worried about the trash they leave behind when they wake up and have to move along in the morning. As a class, we are increasingly aware of the fact that there aren't enough garbage containers or recycling bins in public places. We talk about single use plastics. We talk about plastic bags - they are everywhere. Blown up into trees high above our homes and our streets. They are in gutters. In bushes. In sewer grates. My professor commented that we are choking ourselves and our planet with plastic bags.
My anger morphed into sadness. I simply cannot unsee all the trash that is all around me. When I drive back and forth to work, there is one stretch of Providence Road that is so littered that I have begun to look around for a place where I can park my car one day and try to pick up a bag or two of garbage. It's awful. Yesterday, my husband and I drove just to a college two hours away to watch our son play tennis. As we sped down the highways and wound down the two lane roads, I was dumbstruck by the enormity of our litter problem. The grassy median was horrendous. The roadside shoulders were horrific. I had to force myself to look away or I would have wept. I am brokenhearted about the ways in which we are killing our planet and ourselves with all our stuff and our unwillingness to take proper care of this world in which we live.
Along with the anger and the sadness, I have felt a certain amount of hopelessness too. How on earth can we pick it all up? There are only eight of us in the class. And only half of us are picking up garbage as our creation care project. Three students are creating or revitalizing gardens. Our professor is clearing an overgrown area where he lives. "But if there is no way that we can fix it all or clean it all or clear it all or grow enough food for everyone," I have wondered in my journal, "what's the use? Woe is me. Woe is us." As it turns out, my journal pages are covered with thoughts and questions, commentary and complaints right alongside the reports of answered prayer and joyful praise.
In response to one of the rants I shared in our online classroom space, my professor wrote this: "Lots of people (perhaps most) labor in menial, repetitive jobs day after day. A baker wakes up at 2 every morning to go make the dough and bake the bread for the store - day after day after day. There is no expectation that this task will end. One of the things that I have been considering when I get discouraged by picking up other people's trash is why I think that my life should be different. Why am I driven by accomplishment or completion? Why do I think that I should have an ending for my work?"
That comment hit me right between the eyes.
Who am I to think that I can solve the trash problem in the neighborhood around my church?
How much power do I think I have? Me? Alone? All by my lonesome?
Why is it not enough for me to put on my rubber gloves, grab my garbage bags, and head out - joining the many thousands, perhaps millions, who have been involved in the work of creation care for decades, for centuries?
I'm one of the new members of this earth care team. How can I possibly think I am or I have the answer everyone has been waiting for?
My professor's comment about the baker took me back to that old Dunkin Donuts television commercial - "time to make the donuts." Day in and day out. Day and night. Making donuts. People buy them and eat them. People come back and buy more and eat more. He may have been tired, hot, cold, or wet, but he kept making the donuts. No end in sight.
For some, baking is their calling.
For others, it is teaching.
For still others, the call is nursing.
Day after day. Day and night. Doing the work. No end in sing.
It feels strange to put this in writing, but I think I have experienced something of a call to pick up garbage. I go out two or three times each week and fill bags with things that others have thrown away. I have discovered that my anger, sadness, and hopelessness related to the enormity of the task are being combined with gratitude these days.
I am grateful for this class and the fantastic professor who teaches it.
I am thankful for my classmates and their ability to listen to me complain about the sense of futility I have sometimes felt.
I am thankful for the chance to do something meaningful every week, even a small thing.
I am thankful for the garbage trucks that pick up the bags I have filled during these past seven weeks - not only for this class project, but also from my home.
I am thankful for the therapeutic work of what I now refer to as "street therapy."
And I am grateful for all the stories that have arisen in my mind and soul since beginning this class, some of which I hope and plan to share here.
There is a lot of trash out there, my friends.
But there are also a lot of treasures too.
The most priceless of which is Planet Earth itself.
Thanks be to God for this marvelous, mysterious, and messy earth, the sacred and beautiful mother of us all.