Tag Archive | Sustainability

Eviction: A Little Story of Race and Power

IMG_3069 (800x532)In my first job out of college, I learned who needs to be present to evict someone in the state of Oregon:  a representative of the property owner, a sheriff’s deputy, and a locksmith.  I worked for a non-profit community development organization in inner Northeast Portland which had grown out of a local neighborhood association.  The group wanted to fight blight in their neighborhood as well as preserve the diversity of the community, particularly in terms of race, culture, and social class, as they were starting to see the potential threat of gentrification.  So, part of their strategy was to acquire, renovate, and manage housing at rents that would be affordable for people with low incomes.

About the time I started working there, the organization purchased a building at Northeast 20th and Alberta Streets that had four one-bedroom units.  When we bought the building, one of the units was occupied by a woman who had been a problem for the neighbors.  She had a long police record for using and dealing  illegal drugs in her apartment.  The neighbors complained that there were visitors and noise at all hours, and based on the noise and activity, they suspected that drug dealing was not the only illegal activity going on there.  She had several family members living with her in the one-bedroom unit, which was a violation of the lease.  And she hadn’t paid her rent in several months.  So, as the new property owners, and as an organization whose mission was to improve the neighborhood for the sake of everyone in the community, it fell to us to evict her.

The eviction was scheduled for a Friday afternoon.  That particular Friday afternoon, everyone in the office was going to busy.  The director, who was my boss and had been through this process before, was not available because she had another meeting.  The woman in charge of acquiring and renovating properties did not work on Fridays; neither did the woman who ran our program for women who had graduated from addiction recovery programs.  The bookkeeper wasn’t even available.  So I agreed to be the representative of the property owners at the eviction.

The notices for the eviction went out according to the law.  They had to be delivered in every possible way well in advance of the date to give the tenant a chance to either resolve the issues which were leading to eviction or move out.  Usually, such notices made the situation easy:  when the necessary parties showed up, the apartment was empty.  Then, the sheriff posted their notice, the locksmith changed the lock, and the representative of the property owner handed out the checks and collected the new keys.  But that was not the case that day.  Instead, the woman who was being evicted was still there along with a couple of her friends and several of their children.  She was running around yelling at people as she and the others were frantically tossing clothes, furniture, toys, household items, and other contents of the apartment off of her second-floor balcony into the front yard.  It was quite the sight; it looked like Oliver Twist was going to poke his shy little head around the corner at any moment.  I pulled up and waited in my car for the others to arrive, already feeling a bit apprehensive about the whole situation.

And as the others arrived, though, I became more and more uncomfortable.  The locksmith came up in a pickup, and I saw that he was a white man, like myself.  Then the sheriff’s deputies arrived, two of them, and they were also both beefy, young, white men.  And everyone else there, the woman being evicted as well as her friends and their children, was black.  As our crew of four white men walked up the sidewalk, climbed the stairs, and did our work, my apprehension turned to a horrible, icky feeling.

On one hand, everything going on at the property at NE 20th and Alberta Streets that day was right.  Not only were we following the law, we were doing so in the interest of the whole community.  We were helping the neighborhood, with all the diversity of its residents, accomplish its vision for itself:  a place that was safe and comfortable for all of the people who called that place home.  The problem was not with what we were doing.

The problem was with the way we did it:  four white men, who were agents of the people in power in the situation, invaded a space occupied by black women and children, who had no power in the situation.  The scene evoked the long history of white oppression of blacks in the United States.  The scene reified the stereotypes many people have of what it means to be white and what it means to be black in this country.  The scene played out the fantasies of many people who, explicitly or implicitly, would be just as happy if “those people” were not in their community.  The scene illustrated the truth that the systems under which we all live do not treat people equally, and the scene did not provide a vision for how things could be done differently.  The scene was all wrong, even if everything we were doing was right.

I have been thinking about the scene of the eviction that day as I have watched the news in the past week.  I am not an attorney, and I have not read all of the evidence presented to the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri.  People I trust know more about the laws and the evidence than I do, and based on what they have said in the past few days, I am less and less convinced that the evidence was so inadequate that they could not at least have a trial for Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown (this is one of the better interviews on the topic I have seen).  But even in the days after the prosecutor announced the grand jury’s decision, when I still wondered if it was possible that the grand jury was right, I got that same feeling that I had that day almost 20 years ago at the scene of the eviction. I don’t know if the grand jury was right, but nonetheless, there is plenty wrong with the whole scene.

What would have made the scene of the eviction better?  I went back to my boss the following Monday and told her that, at the very least, we needed to work harder to make sure the people present at the eviction represented the local community.  We did not have any control over which deputies the sheriff’s office would send to an eviction, but the scene would have been better if they represented the diversity of the community they were serving.  We could do business with a locksmith who did not look like me.  But mostly, my boss and I agreed, I did not need to be a part of any more evictions, not because I was unwilling to do work that was uncomfortable, but because, as a white man, I did not need to be in that scene, at least not by myself, because my presence did not support a vision for how things could be done better.

Grandpa Hamilton’s Forest

IMG_2861 (800x533)In 1907, my great grandfather bought a farm in the Sequatchie Valley in Tennessee. He had lived in the Sequatchie Valley all his life; in fact, his family had farmed in that valley since his own great grandfather settled there long before Tennessee became a state. Grandpa Hamilton had deep roots in farming, and even deeper roots in that part of the world.

The Hamiltons were not wealthy; he bought the land only after he sold another farm which had been given to him when he was married 18 years earlier. I would love to know who gave him a farm as a wedding present, but I don’t. Once he bought his new farm, he built a small house on it for his family to live in. There are three rooms in the house, plus a kitchen and a hallway, and off the side porch, there is another small room. In the back, there is a small building which covers the well and a small room behind it. I am sure there was an outhouse in the vicinity at one time, because there is no way to meet those needs in the house. There is a shed out front and a barn a hundred yards or so to the north of the house. In 1907, he had six children, ranging in age from 2 to 16; two more children were born in that house before his first wife died in 1916. I have no idea how ten people all got along in those four rooms, plus a kitchen.

Although the house is not large, Grandpa Hamilton did not seem to skimp on the details. Every room in the main part of the house has a brick fireplace. The ceilings are high, and there are plenty of windows. There are porches on three sides, a few cabinets and a good-sized sink in the kitchen, and a crawl space underneath. There is asbestos siding on the outside, a hazard now but a quality material then, and a metal roof on the top, although those may have been added later.  The house was built to last a long time.

And it has lasted a long time. 107 years later, it is still standing. The porch floors have rotted in places, and one corner of the roof covering the front porch has caved in. The wallpaper is peeling to reveal the lath boards underneath. Some of the faces on the fireplaces are crumbling, most of the windows are broken, some of the doors don’t close all the way, and the floor is a bit uneven. But the house is still there.

Besides building that simple but sturdy house, though, Grandpa Hamilton did a remarkable thing. With roots as deep as his in that valley and in the business of farming, he knew the value of the land he owned. However, he set his house off the road a good bit, and around the house and between there and the road, he preserved several acres of trees. They were large trees of species native to that area: walnut, hickory, oak, cedar, and others. My dad wrote to me a few years ago recalling about his grandfather that “squirrels and birds thrived, and he allowed only very limited hunting when damage could be observed in the barn bins.”

Grandpa Hamilton and his sons mowed the weeds around the woodland, and they planted acres and acres of corn and other crops out back. But they left that land around the trees undisturbed. His grandson and great-grandsons who still farm the land have kept up that practice, and the woodland has remained so thick that it is impossible for a person to penetrate. It is much like I imagine most of the land in that part of the world looked before people came along to cut down the trees, hack out the undergrowth, till the soil, and sow their crops.

For the past 30 years or so, no one has cleared the brush from around the house, either. And while Grandpa Hamilton’s trees and their offspring have almost overtaken the house now, with some of the trunks so close that they seem to climb the exterior walls, I wonder if the trees he preserved are part of what have kept that simple building standing for so long. The unused houses and barns up and down the valley which are not surrounded with trees show their vulnerability to the wind and the rain. They have roofs and walls which are caving in and frames which are leaning. But protected from the wind and all but the heaviest of rains, Grandpa Hamilton’s house still stands in the forest he set aside out of his farmland.

Grandpa Hamilton was no progressive. From what my dad tells me, he called Franklin Roosevelt one of the worst things to happen to this country. I can just imagine my father as a young boy listening as his grandfather repeated that strongly-held opinion to him, loudly, over and over again; he would not have been the first old man who held tightly to his view of the world as the world changed around him. But he was ahead of his time in at least this one regard: he valued nature, and he worked to preserve it, even if that meant giving up some of his precious farmland.

In the suburban community where I live, I recently had a conversation with someone about trees. I have made my feelings about trees and the way they are treated in our suburban community known before. In this conversation, I talked about whether it would be possible to plant some new trees where some ancient but dead specimens of native magnolia, sweetgum, live oak, and hickory nut have recently been removed. The person I was talking with agreed that it would be good to replace the removed trees. But the varieties were another story. “Those trees are all messy,” she said. “They drop leaves, branches, and litter all over the yard. Maybe we can find some modern hybrids of those same kinds of trees. No one is going to want those trees around that they have to clean up after!”

And I was mystified. I wanted to scream: “They are trees; of course they drop leaves and branches. The leaves and branches can be removed, or even better, they can be chopped up and used to enhance the soil under the trees. That is the way those varieties of trees have thrived in our area for millions of years before we came along!” But I let my suburban sensitivities get the better of me, and I just smiled politely.

I think Grandpa Hamilton and I would have at least a few things in common.

Tree Removal?!?

IMG_7388 (533x800)Last Friday, I was at home alone while my son was in school and my wife was at a conference.  I was painting the trim in our bedroom, a tedious task, but one which I did not want to have interrupted.  The dog became agitated, so I knew someone was probably coming to the door.  I looked out the window, and a man was sitting up in the back of a pickup truck which was driving slowly down the street.  He waved a friendly wave, and another man came up the driveway.  That man handed me a business card, pointed at the River Birch which stands a few yards outside my front door, and said, “Your tree here:  we’ll take it down, haul it away, grind up the stump, uhhh… three hundred dollars.”  He looked at me like he expected me to sing a Doxology at his offer to make the River Birch vanish as if it had never even been there.

I wasn’t sure what to say.  How does one respond to an unsolicited offer like this one?  I wanted to ask him with as much condescension as I could muster, “why would I want to remove a perfectly healthy, mature tree?”  I wanted to inform him, “I have seen tree after tree come down in this neighborhood; I am not going to let you destroy another one!”  I wanted to preach to him, “the world, and especially this part of this city, needs more trees, not fewer.”  I wanted to drive him away, not just from my driveway, but from my neighborhood as well, “what gives you the right to go around encouraging people to cut down perfectly healthy trees?”

Instead, I swallowed my righteous indignation and answered him with a bit more professional respect.  But only a bit.  “We might need a little trim, but we wouldn’t want to cut it down!”  He muttered something about trimming a few branches, I promised to talk with my wife about what we might do, and he and his colleagues continued down the street to spread their generous offer of cheap removal of healthy, mature trees.

I looked at the business card on the way into the house:  “B & C Tree and Lawn Service:  No Job Too Large or Small.”  There was nothing about the qualifications of the technicians who would be servicing the trees or the lawns which might be put under their care.  There was nothing about the number of years the owners had been doing this kind of work or the availability of references from satisfied clients.  There was only the promise that size does not, in fact, matter to them and the phone number to call to have my tree removed.

The encounter made me wonder:  why did the proprietors of B & C Tree and Lawn Service think it would be worth their time to make unsolicited offers to remove trees from our neighborhood?  And the answer is obvious:  because people in our neighborhood might want to get rid of their trees.  In a typical suburban neighborhood like ours, trees can easily be considered a problem.  Trees are not orderly or neat.  Trees drop leaves, twigs, and even whole branches.  Trees are home to birds and other fauna who make messes on clean cars.  Trees grow unevenly sometimes:  they droop over here, making us duck our heads, and they lean over there, making everything look a bit off-kilter.

Trees are opposed to the suburban ideal.  The suburbs were developed as a way for the middle class to escape the problems of urban neighborhoods while still avoiding the problems of real nature.  Real nature is disordered, unpredictable, even chaotic.  It does not conform to any ideals of balance or symmetry in design.  It does not follow any standards of behavior, and it does not respect clearly delineated boundaries of space.  Nature cannot understand the difference between a place which ought to be clean and a place which can be dirty, or a place which demands a lot of light and a place which should be shaded.  Nature just grows, and spreads, and then when it is done, it falls back and dies, only to grow again the next year.  Nature is problematic to anyone with an impulse to control, to bring order, or to keep some standards of neatness and cleanliness.  Nature is kind of like God in that way.

The impulse to control nature is one I understand, even if I do not believe it is in the long-term best interests of our community or our planet.  I was pleased to read a piece on the editorial page of the Savannah Morning News this morning written by Jerry Flemming, the City of Savannah’s Director of Parks, Trees, and Cemeteries.  In his column, Mr. Flemming spoke about the large population of fall webworms in our city this year.  Fall webworms are caterpillars which spin webs in trees.  The webs surround leaves, which the webworms then eat.  Once they have eaten all of the leaves inside their webs, they expand the webs to encompass more leaves.  This year, because we had a mild winter and a wet spring and summer, there are more fall webworms in our city’s trees than normal, and property owners have apparently been calling the city with concerns.

I understand the concerns because the River Birch in our front yard, which the B & C Tree and Lawn Service offered to obliterate for me, has sustained a particularly prolific population of fall webworms this year.  Last month, the meatiest part of the leaves on most of the tree were eaten away, and only the lacy remains of the veins were left.  Then, the fall webworms fell to the ground and started looking for a place to pupate.  Each day for a week or so, scores of fall webworms crawled their way across the cement floor of my front porch and up my front door.  My wife refused to use that door.  My son was fascinated as long as he could see them from a distance.  It was gross.  Nature is not helpful to those of us with an impulse to control, to bring order, or to maintain some standards of neatness.

Within a few days, though, the webworms stopped coming, and a good squirt with the garden hose got rid of the remains of the creatures which I had not been able to sweep into the azalea bed in front of the porch.  In the mean time, I had done my research:  fall webworms are harmless to the trees because they eat the leaves at just about the time they will die anyway.  The tree will leaf out again next spring, and once we get a good freeze or a surge in natural predators to control the population, all evidence of the infestation will be gone.  So there really is no need to do anything about the webworms.

That was more or less the advice which Mr. Flemming gave.  However, in the final paragraph of his column, he gave this caveat:  “If you have a highly valued ornamental, fruit or nut tree and are concerned, call an arborist. If the caterpillars or moths are invading your home, call a pesticide applicator.”  And in many ways, I wish he hadn’t said that.  I worry that it is too much of a nod to those people who cannot forbear this little bit of the chaos of nature invading their neat, ordered, suburban yards.  I worry that it encourages homeowners to try to control the problem anyway by calling in the “experts” and offering them healthy profits for spraying God-knows-what kinds of chemicals which will end up in our groundwater and rivers.  I worry that, instead of calling qualified arborists, who will calmly counsel them to just wait for the webworms to go away, his advice will encourage my neighbors to call people like the owner of B & C Tree and Lawn Service.  Because I know that, for three hundred dollars or so, B & C Tree and Lawn Service will happily oblige the homeowners’ disgust and fear of this most recent infestation of nature by removing the trees altogether.  No Job Too Large or Small.

The world needs more healthy mature trees, not fewer.  I wish the owners of B & C Tree and Lawn Service recognized that.  I wish my neighbors who have removed perfectly fine trees from their yards recognized that.  I wish the purveyors of the suburban ideal recognized that.  I wish the City of Savannah’s Director of Parks, Trees, and Cemeteries communicated that clearly, repeatedly, and without any qualification.  Why would I want to remove a perfectly healthy, mature tree?

Disdain and Tenacity

IMG_5355 (534x800)I like my lawn.  I like my lawn because it is not all grass.  There is an incredible variety of plants which live in my lawn alongside the centipede and Bermuda and St. Augustine grasses which have become all mixed up out there.  Some of those plants have broad leaves along trailing vines, like the dichondra and the dollar weed.  Some of the plants form florets of leaves around a center stem, like the dandelions.  Some of the plants even have fuzzy leaves; I am not even sure what those are called.  The occasional oak tree pokes it’s lobed leaves up in the middle of my lawn.  I even have one or two crepe myrtle bushes which have been trying for years to push themselves up into their towering shrub form from the midst of my lawn.  Each time I mow, I think I will finally discourage the poor things enough that they will just shrivel up and disappear.  But they don’t; they just spread broader and poke up more branches in their futile attempts at reaching their full potential.  Bless their hearts.

But even with all of their variety, taken together, the plants in my lawn serve the same function as the grass in any lawn in an average suburban neighborhood.  That is to say, those plants are supposed to serve no individual function at all.  They are not supposed to stand out in any way.  Instead, they are supposed to look like a uniform meadow of green.  Their role in the world is not so much to paint a picture but to create a mood.  Landscape designers will tell you that swaths of green are necessary to allow the eye to rest.  They provide peace and calm, order and structure, shape and form, so that the other elements of the landscape can shine.  They are like herbaceous background singers, offering their rhythmic hums and do-wops so that the diva-like soloists can strut their stuff on the front of the stage.  That, I believe, is why dandelions are so offensive.  They plant themselves in the middle of the lawn, and although they have a different texture than what surrounds them, they are not, on the whole, ugly.  But then they shove their uppity, yellow blossoms toward the sky, and it becomes obvious that they have forgotten their place in the world.  The nerve!

Contrast the role of those varied plants in the lawn with what is in my flower beds.  That is where you will find the real stars of the kingdom plantae.  I have plenty of springtime divas out there right now:  the brilliant pink calla lilies glow, the gerbera daisies strut their primary yellow- and red-colored stuff, the oriental lily hybrids attract attention to their blushing petals, and the caladiums I bought earlier this spring show off the dazzling variegation of their leaves.  Or even contrast the workhorses of the vegetable and herb gardens.  The tomatoes and peppers and strawberries and oregano are not as gorgeous as the callas, the lilies, the daisies, and the caladiums.  But the flavors they bring rival the glory of the ornamental superstars.

Each of those plants serves a positive function, and they are special because of that function.  The plants in my lawn serve a negative function:  they are not supposed to compete with the plants in the flower and vegetable beds for attention.  And that is all.

And so, imagine my surprise and shock a few weeks ago at what I saw in the middle of my lawn.  At the top of a lobed-leaf plant poking up from the middle of the lawn, about equidistant from the river birch which dominates the front yard and the flower bed which lines the front of the house, there was a tiny, white flower.  And I recognized that flower and the leaves that accompanied it at once:  it was a blackberry.  A wild blackberry was trying with all its little might to grow and bloom and produce fruit in the middle of the front lawn.

I took some time to admire the little thing.  Its disdain for the overall function of the lawn that surrounded it, along with its sheer tenacity, earned my respect.  It didn’t care where it was planted.  It didn’t care about the horror its presence would cause the landscape designers; it didn’t care whether my eye had an opportunity to rest between gazes at the prettier things coming up in my yard.  It didn’t care that the rules say the fruit-bearing flora belongs in the back yard.  It had no interest in suburban propriety.  Its one mission in life was to fight for the right to bear its fruit, and by God, it was going to fight hard.  It had even armed itself with a score or more of spikes up and down its three-inch stem, daring someone, anyone, to tell it that it couldn’t do what it was destined to do, right in the spot where it found itself.

There are any number of metaphors that could be drawn from this little berry bramble asserting its right to do its thing wherever it grew.  I think of my son, whose intelligence and uniquely beautiful personality I can see, but who sometimes gets lost as necessary order is imposed on the jumble of dozens of kindergarten students who are made to sit still at their tables and stand straight in line and listen to the teacher and avoid distracting their neighbors.  I think of activists and artists and other saints in many times and places who have stood up not only for their own right to show their unique beauty and skill in the world, but who have organized and taught others to stand up and stand out, too.  I think of the narratives of my Christian faith, which give example after example of times when God has unexpectedly lifted ordinary people out of their ordinary circumstances to mediate extraordinary blessing to God’s people and the whole of God’s creation.

Any of those thoughts could lead me to lessons potentially learned from this little, wild blackberry which dared to bloom in the middle of my lawn  But I am not sure a lesson is what is needed here.  For now, I think I am ready to simply appreciate that a disdain for order and tenacity of purpose are not exceptional in this world; in fact, they are very natural.

I like my lawn because it is not all grass.

The Freaks and the Nones

My neighbors think I am a freak.  They are too polite to say it; this is the South, after all, bless your heart.  But I know what they are thinking when they see me working in my yard using some techniques and tools which most people around here don’t use.  And I wonder if I need to get used to being considered a freak, not just because of my gardening methods, but also because of my faith.

For instance, I have a mulching lawn mower, so I never rake the leaves off of my lawn.  The lawn mower is electric, and everyone else around here has a gas mower.  And a key part of my strategy for weed control in my flower beds involves newspapers.  Yes, newspapers.  When I lived up north, I read one of those helpful columns in the newspaper giving advice on gardening.  One week, the writer suggested spreading newspaper on a new flower bed before spreading mulch and planting.  The newspaper smothers the weeds and prevents new weeds from growing.  Then, over time, it decomposes, adding nutrients to the flower bed after the need for smothering what is under the newspaper is passed.

The process is simple:  after I dig a new bed, I add some manure, compost, or other soil booster.  Then, I spread the papers on the bare ground.  I usually use at least two layers of paper at a time, overlapping them so that there are at least four layers in any given place in the bed with no gaps between the papers for weeds to sneak up.  For a bed with a lot of weeds, I have laid 8 or 10 layers of newspaper.  As I spread the sheets of paper, I periodically sprinkle them with water so they are heavy and will not blow away.  Once I have the paper spread all over the bed, I put 2 – 3 inches of pine straw or other mulch on top to hide the newspaper, hold it in place, and further snuff out the weeds.  I have even done the whole process without digging up the bed first; I simply spread composted manure on the grass in the place where I wanted the bed to be, then put a thick dressing of newspaper and the mulch on top.  By the following spring, the grass was gone, having decomposed and become a part of the soil after it died from lack of air and light under the newspaper.  That bed has prospered well with Black-Eyed Susans, Mexican Heather, Gerbera Daisies, some Calla Lillies, Cannas, Hibiscus, and a few other pretty things.

It was during the construction of that flower bed that I first got the snickering comments from my neighbor across the street.  As I was carefully laying newspaper on the green grass one breezy November day, he was washing his car in his driveway.  I imagined as he kept looking across the street that he was mocking me.  To be fair, he may have simply been curious.  I don’t remember now how he finally broke the silence to find out what I was doing, but I believe it was some comment made in jest about the strangeness of my activity.  I was, after all, spreading newspaper on my lawn, an activity made all the more freakish by the breeze.  The papers kept trying to fly away, so I had to do some gymnastics to hold them in place while I reached for the hose to weigh them down with water.  I explained that I had seen this idea in the paper one time.  I did not mention that the article was in a Northern newspaper, since that detail would make it automatically suspect as some hippie liberal conspiracy to further denigrate the Southern man.  My neighbor seemed satisfied, and he even complemented me the next year on the beauty of the bed I created so oddly.

Earlier this year, I used a layer of newspapers in another flower bed, this time next to the house.  I had re-planted the bed last summer, but I had never been able to control the weeds effectively.  As I was spreading the papers one spring morning, my next-door neighbor made some suggestion that there were better ways to read the newspaper than by spreading it all over the front yard.  He was polite and jovial, but again, there was that snickering tone.  I explained the strategy to him, this time leaving out the details about the source of the idea, and he didn’t push any further.  I could tell, though, that he was not convinced this would ever be considered a conventional method for weed control, and I have since seen the more standard method applied to his yard:  the True-Green Lawn Service truck came and spread God-knows-what kind of petrochemicals on his lawn.

Last Friday, I was once again spreading newspapers as I continued with my project of renewing an old flower bed that had gone to weeds.  Fortunately, I was spared the strange looks of my neighbors because I was working in the back yard.  But I also had a news story on my mind.  Last week, the Pew Research folks published the results of a recent survey saying that 20% of Americans do not currently identify with any religious tradition (for an article on the survey from Religion News Service, click here).  It is not that these people are refusing to choose between the Presbyterians and the Methodists; they do not claim any religious affiliation at all.  They are not Christian any more than they are Jewish or Buddhist or Unitarian or anything else.  Based on how they answered the surveyors’ questions, they are simply considered “nones.”

There have been a lot of comments about the findings.  Many of us are not surprised; this is a trend which has been growing since I was in college, and in other parts of the country where I have lived, the number of “nones” passed 20% a long time ago.  The day after the findings were released, one person at my church lamented to me “it’s such a shame that so many people don’t have any faith at all.”  Two hours later, someone else proclaimed excitedly, “well, the church has to take advantage of the opportunities to reach those people!”  Whether it is a great tragedy for society or a great opportunity for evangelism I will let others say.  I simply want to lift up this new reality and imagine how it will affect us as people of faith.

The fact is that Christians are a bit strange, and if current trends continue, we may even slide into the category of freaks.  We are odd because we spend so much time at the church when we could be doing things which are more gratifying.  We are different because we see more happening in the world than we can observe or prove scientifically.  We are strange because we are committed to an institution which seems, at various times, quaint, untrustworthy, corrupt, rigid, oppressive, too liberal, too conservative, too wishy-washy, archaic, and arcane.  And don’t get me started about just how bizarre the practice and theory of worship is in the modern world, if you really think about it.

For clergy, this oddness is not a new thing.  When people we meet outside the church find out what my wife and I do for a living, they often become fascinated, intimidated, self-righteous, condescending, or all of the above, all at once.  At the very least, they rarely react in the same way as I imagine they would if we said we were a pair of accountants or teachers or baristas.  Two or three years after we moved in, we were talking with the wife of our neighbor across the street who first observed my newspaper trick.  She admitted that, when she first heard two ministers had bought the house across the street, she would carefully hide the cases of beer she occasionally brought home from the grocery store in heavy paper bags and tuck them under her coat.  We were strange to her; she didn’t think she could behave normally in front of us.

In the future, if current trends continue, I wonder if all Christians will have to accept a new identity as social freaks.  I wonder if people will start to smirk and tease the way my neighbors do when I start spreading my layers of newspaper in my front yard.  And I wonder if there might be something freeing about being freaks in a world of nones.  I wonder if we will be able to be Christians because we want to be, and we feel called to be, not because that is the way everyone else is.  I wonder if we will claim our identities with a greater sense of purpose.  I wonder if we will be freed to simply live lives which are worthy of the gospel, loving our neighbors as we have been loved by our God, whether it is the popular thing to do or not.  I wonder if we will recognize that most of what we are called by Jesus to do is very counter-cultural, if not counter-intuitive.  I wonder if we will discover that, if we do it right, our faith will not help us in our business networking or efforts to climb the ladder of power and prestige, and it might even get in the way.  I wonder if we will have to learn to put into words why our faith is important to us in ways we can’t currently articulate.  I wonder if we will invite others into our alternative lifestyle only after they watch us for a while and inquire about why we live so strangely.

I wish my neighbors would just try using newspaper to control weeds rather than using the hazardous chemicals or back-breaking efforts they currently employ.  I think they would find it more effective, more healthy, and more enjoyable.  But based on their snickers and teasing, I don’t think they will try it anytime soon.  I will simply have to wait until they see that, as odd as it seems, it works, and then I can encourage them to try it for themselves.

Righteous Anger

The local flora and fauna, at the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. Photo (c) Eric Beene, 2012

Last week, I was out mowing the lawn on the side of my house.  Well, I say I was mowing the lawn; what is growing there could hardly be described as a lawn.  There is grass there, but it has been all but taken over by an unidentified variety of weeds, stray bedding plants from the neighbor’s yard, volunteer canna and crepe myrtle offspring, ferns that have crept under the fence from my own back yard, and whatever that vine is which likes to attach itself to the brick on the side of the house.  Although I yank it off the wall whenever I see it, that vine has an unsettling ability to grow high enough to reach my attic within a few days.  Between the vine creeping up the wall, the towering cannas, the remains of a long-since-rotted split rail fence, and the mess of overgrown weeds, my side yard ceases to look like a convenient passageway to the only gate in the back fence.  Instead, it is reminiscent of some horrible scene in which creatures supposedly extinct since the comet hit may lumber out, teeth bared, at any moment.  And it is only about 8 feet wide.

To mitigate against dinosaur attacks, I mow the side yard regularly, and last week, it was time.  As I was mowing, a panel truck drove up the street and parked in front of my neighbor’s house.  It was proudly painted on the side, “TruGreen Lawn Care.”  I had seen these trucks before. The uniformed driver hopped out, opened one of the side panels on the truck, pulled out a long, red, industrial-strength rubber hose, turned on some loud equipment embedded in the truck, and began walking back and forth on my neighbor’s lawn.  He pointed the hose at the ground, and out of the nozzle came some kind of crystallized pellets of unknown chemicals.  I am guessing those chemicals are designed to make sure that nothing but Bermuda grass grows wherever it is applied.

I felt anger arise inside me as I saw that truck pull up and the chemicals applied to my neighbor’s yard.  As I pushed my mower up and back along the side of my house, I began to fantasize about my encounter with the driver of the chemical truck.  He would approach me with a big, friendly smile, extending his hand.  In his hand would be a glossy, four-colored brochure with a cover photo of an unnaturally smiling family in front of an unnaturally large home with an unnaturally green lawn around it.  He would say to me, “your neighbor uses our services to control the weeds in her lawn; would you be interested in knowing how we can help you?”  In my mind, I worked and worked on what I would say next, and I settled on this, spoken quietly, calmly, but firmly:  “If it was up to me, chemicals like the ones you are spreading would be banned from the face of the earth.  But since it is not up to me, just suffice it to say that it would be over my rotting corpse that you will ever be allowed to spray that crap on my lawn.”  It would be powerful, it would be articulate, and it would make the statement that needed to be made.

In the interest of civility, there was a piece of me that was glad when the driver never approached me.  He simply finished spreading his poison, reeled in his hose, plucked one of those little caution signs in my neighbor’s front yard, got in his panel truck, and began to drive up the street.  Then, he stopped again, directly in front of the house on the other side of mine, and began his toxic routine of spreading chemicals all over their yard, too.

I was surprised, though, at the level of the righteous anger that welled up inside of me.  It is a kind of righteous anger that I see a lot of these days, both in myself and in other people, particularly in a year when we are electing a president.  I think it is similar to the righteous anger that drives many people to post things on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and other social media that take the tone like I was prepared to take with that truck driver if my fantasy had worked itself out in reality.

I was convinced that my approach is the right approach, and I could not see how anyone could disagree.  How could the friendly people who live on both sides of me buy into the mythology that I long ago dismissed:  that the only acceptable lawns are free of weeds, and that the only way to make them free of weeds is to spray mysterious chemicals on them?  How could they not understand, like I do, that we live only about two blocks from a marsh and river?  That marsh and river is filled with a delicately and complexly balanced set of insects, fish, water fowl, reptiles, and countless other species, all protected and fed by grasses which would either be prematurely killed or unnaturally accelerated by the very chemicals which would seep into the ground from their lawns!  How could the man driving the truck get out of bed in the morning and go to work knowing what he does to the ecosystem we live in every day?  Sure, it’s a job, and I am sure he is glad to have it, but couldn’t he use his training to do something more healthy and helpful than making suburban lawns greener than they really should be?

A textbook I read in college on conflict management said that anger is not a primary emotion.  Anger is a secondary emotion, and it is usually associated with a primary reaction of fear or frustration.  I recognized my frustration.  As I said to the truck driver in my fantasy, it is not up to me to decide what chemicals can and cannot be spread on my neighbors’ lawns.  That lack of power is frustrating.  And that lack of power leaves me to stew in my fears for the ground water, the flora and fauna which make their home in the marsh and river up the street, and the whole ecosystem which sustains our lives.

The problem with that frustration and fear is that I am a person of faith.  Fundamental to my faith is the conviction that, although I am not in charge of the world, what is in charge of the world is good.  In fact, some in the Christian tradition would say that what is in charge of the world is goodness itself.  Therefore, if I take my faith seriously, I do not have to be afraid.  I can trust that, at the end of it all, the chemicals my neighbors pay the company this man works for to spread on their lawns will not ruin the whole of creation.  Don’t get me wrong; I am not called by my faith to be passive.  My tradition also reminds me to take personal and collective sin seriously, to understand the interconnectedness of all people, and to work as hard as I can to steward the natural world as well as human relationships well.  Frustration, fear, and the anger which results are gifts which call me to act.  But the reality is that I could not stop the man from spreading the chemicals the other morning, and my faith tells me that my anger does not have to make me bitter or uncivil, because, although I am not in charge, God is, and at the end of it all, everything will be good, just like it was in the beginning.

And I realize that perhaps that faith is what I need to approach the other forms of righteous anger which will arise in me between now and the first Tuesday in November and beyond.  Although I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would support the other candidate, the fact is that my candidate may not win the election.  Although I cannot for the life of me understand how anyone could believe the vitriol  which is posted on social media by people all along the red-blue spectrum, there may be some truth in most of it.  Although I cannot for the life of me understand why people will act with such little consideration for civility in political debates, the convictions those people hold are as passionately felt as my own convictions.  And at the end of it all, my faith tells me to calm down, and while I do my part as a citizen and a child of God, to trust the God who is in charge, and to cling to the hope that, at the end of it all, everything will be good, just like it was in the beginning.

I finished mowing the small patch of weeds in my side yard, wondering how many of those weeds would be destroyed by the chemicals which were spread only a few feet away.  And moved on to the larger complex of grass and weeds which constitute the lawn in my back yard.  Back there, I was able to admire the beauty of the flowers, herbs, vegetables, bushes, and trees surrounding my lawn, knowing that those beautiful things can only grow where they are because I choose not to spread similar chemicals on the ground in which they grow.


On the way home from work tonight, I was listening to NPR.  During a story about the presidential campaign, the reporter claimed that Obama and Romney have “vastly different visions” for the nation.  I thought about that statement for a while, and I realized I disagree with it.  I don’t think the candidates differ in their vision; I think they mostly differ in the strategies they propose for realizing the nation’s visions.

As I kept driving, encountering more traffic than usual because of construction and an accident, I started thinking about the yards in my average, suburban neighborhood.  For the most part, I would guess that my neighbors and I have something of a common vision for the landscape of our yards.  As I work in my yard, I realize two hopes guide me:  beauty and sustainability.  I mow and trim the lawn, I drag the hose around to water, I pull weeds and plant flowers around the house and next to the street because I want to see beauty.  At the same time, I also seek sustainability:  I want to make sure this little plot of land continues to serve my family well as a place to play, a place to relax, and a place to live our lives.  And when our time to live on this lot is done, I want the next occupants to be able to coax their own vision of beauty out of this place, too.

The differences in the yards on our street have little to do with vision.  In fact, my neighbors and I often come together around our shared visions of beauty and sustainability.  We offer each other complements on a well-mowed lawn or a colorful display of blooms, making our evaluations based on our shared vision for the landscape of our street.  We advise one another on how to increase beauty and promote sustainability.  We offer each other surplus plants and other tools, along with information about how we have been about to grow them to be as beautiful and sustainable as they can be.

The differences in our yards, I think, are related to each homeowner’s  strategies for enacting the vision.  I find flowers more beautiful and more sustainable than grass.  Therefore, over time, I am pursuing a strategy of reducing the square footage of my lawn and increasing the square footage dedicated to flower beds.  Some of my neighbors believe that a uniform, lush, green lawn is beautiful, so they strategically mow more often than I mow, water more frequently than I water, and use more chemical fertilizers than I use.  Most of my neighbors do not seem to have the time, energy, money, inclination, or other resources to fuss very much, so they choose a strategy of keeping the grass mowed, tending a few bushes or perennials, and cleaning up now and then.  Still, by accomplishing these maintenance tasks, they seem to buy into the prevailing vision of beauty and sustainability.

And I think the differences between the candidates similarly have little to do with vision.  Both candidates use similar language to communicate a vision for the nation.  Their vision language is the language of the civic religion which dominates our culture.  Usually, that vision is cast in terms of prosperity, security, justice, and that high mark of modernist humanism, freedom.  The words are sometimes different; Obama used a lot of vision language about hope in 2008, for instance.  But he described that vision of hope in a way which Romney, McCain, or any other candidate could not contradict.

That is not, of course, to say that the candidates are the same.  But the differences between them are differences in strategy.  Can we best promote prosperity by increasing the rate at which the wealthy are taxed and on the wealthy and investing more money in education, health, anti-poverty, and other social programs?  Or can we best promote prosperity by decreasing taxes on wealthy people and businesses to encourage more investment in business, increase employment, and foster charitable giving?  Do we promote security by increasing the resources spent on the military, or do we promote security through foreign aid programs and diplomacy?  Can justice best be promoted by allowing people who are in homosexual relationships the same legal rights as everyone else, or is justice best defended by defining the legal unit we call “family” in the same way we have for the last several generations?

I don’t think the NPR reporter was accurate in saying the candidates have vastly different visions.  But I appreciate that she is willing to use language about vision because I think vision is an important conversation.  What if we were to engage in political conversations about the vision which most candidates offer, rather than allowing  arguments about strategies to distract our attention?  At least two things could happen.  First, we might find that we have more in common with each other than we now think.  And second, we might really start to see new possibilities for dialogue and social change.  Those of us who are disciples of Jesus, for instance, might ask ourselves how the Biblical traditions support and challenge the visions of our national civic religion which the candidates most often speak about. Is the national vision of freedom the same as the vision of freedom we find in the Bible?  When a candidate talks about prosperity, is he or she describing a vision which would make sense to Jesus?  What is the basis of our hope?  Of justice?  Where does a Biblical vision of wholeness fit with the visions which the candidates are casting?

As I dig up more of my grass and plant more flowers and shrubs in its place, I contemplate the vision of beauty and sustainability which I share with my neighbors.  As I listen to the candidates, I likewise contemplate the vision of the nation and the vision of my faith, too.  And I wonder why we can so freely complement, advise, and share with each other around one set of visions, but we don’t ever speak to each other about the others.