A few years ago I spent some time in Uganda and Kenya. Both countries were filled with beautiful people and I learned much from those I met. One of the things I noticed about both countries was the amount of litter that dotted both the urban neighborhood and the countryside. Deep inside the slums of Nairobi litter no longer dotted the landscape it was a major part of it. Seeing the dirt, the litter, and the despair that accompanied it all was very sobering.
Litter is part of the inner city landscape in the United States. One of the most notable differences between my home in the burbs and the streets of East Garfield Park where I work a few times a week is that the urban neighborhood is awash in litter. It’s not a little bit of litter. It’s a lot. Litter seems to be a constant companion of the poor for a lot of different reasons. Some of it has to do with issues of personal responsiblity I'm sure. Couple that with systemic inequity, government indifference, lack of resources and a general acceptance of low expectation and it's no wonder the human spirit gets beaten down robbing people of hope. When hope falls away motivation follows.
Litter is both a problem and a symptom. It clutters not just streets and lawns but intrudes on the heart and mind. Whether it be Africa or Chicago the garbage that acccumulates affects those living there. It adds insult to injury.
This past week our staff at Breakthrough cleaned up an empty lot we own and raked and swept a long city block. We filled a dumpster and an additional 25 rather large bags with garbage. And my heart broke. We picked up condoms, small plastic bags used for drugs, and broken glass. Lots of broken glass. And I thought of the children who played on that street. What was life like for them?
We have a good staff at Breakthrough. While we worked we prayed that perhaps our efforts would be used by God to motivate the currently unmotivated to care about their neighborhood. and encourage those who do. In addition, our efforts on the streets that day reminded us of the day in and day out grind many of our guests, neighbors and program participants experience. A couple of my colleagues are organizing a walk around the empty lot where we someday hope to build a FamilyPlex. On the walk we will pray. We will pray that God will move against the strongholds that are holding so many captive.
My neighborhood has garbage too. We just have the means to hide it from view. We know all about drugs and alcohol and sexual temptation. We have our own plastic bags, broken glass and used condoms. But they’re hidden from sight because that’s what suburban people do. We hide our junk or at least try to. It’s as if we believe that out of sight does indeed become out of mind. Even though there is nowhere near as much viewable litter in my suburban neighborhood the truth of the matter is that there are plenty of unhealthy things that dot the landscape of our inner lives, holding us captive and breaking the heart of God. Perhaps we’d be wise to hold a prayer vigil asking God to move against the strongholds gripping our lives.
Life is littered. Filled with garbage. Some of it is easy to see. Sometimes not so much. Even though my street and yard are clean sometimes my heart and mind get riddled with garbage. My attitude gets ugly and my thinking gets to stinking. And I do little to get it cleaned up. It’s amazing how we can settle for ‘what is’ instead of aspiring to and praying for what can be.
We’re in the midst of Earth Week. We think about being good stewards of the planet as God has asked us to be. Some of us move beyond thinking and begin to act. I’m thinking of litter this week. I’m thinking of the observable debris and the invisible garbage that beats us all down. Both need to be cleaned up. Are we up to it?
In both Africa and on the west side of Chicago litter was hard to find on some lots and in front of more than a few homes. There are people who care about how they live no matter what their circumstance. These are the people who help stabilize a neighborhood and bring hope to what looks like hopeless situations. They defy the labels and stereotypes those seeking easy answers want to slap on the poor. These are the real heroes and heroines for they stand against the proverbial boulder coming down the mountain believing that what they say and do can reverse its downward path. With God, they believe, all things are possible. May their tribe increase.