catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 10 :: 2008.05.16 — 2008.05.30


The tide of trash

When my children visit their grandparents the thing that they always say as we drive into those distant neighborhoods is, "Look! There's no trash!  It's so clean."   Five hours in a car and that's the first thing they always say.  Litter is a daily reality in inner city Pittsburgh.  I wish it weren’t; in fact, sometimes it makes me feel physically ill.  Over the last 12 years I have struggled not to feel rage at the litter-ers.

I grew up in the early 80s in the suburbs reading Ranger Rick and sending money to Greenpeace to save the harp seals.  We had classes at school in conservation and environmental science, my Dad was a scoutmaster and my mom a bird watching addict. Littering was not an option!  I internalized a trash ethic.  I knew that there was no "away" as in, "throw it away." 

By the time I hit college I was ripe to see the connections between my vision of the earth and God's Word.  On a very sad side note, not once had my church spoken to my growing environmental ethic. Instead, I had learned about God's creation from a long line of neo-pagans and avowed atheists.  That all changed at Messiah College through the ministry of the Coalition for Christian Outreach.  Their Reformed theology introduced me to Abraham Kuyper, a famous Dutch theologian, and Byron Borger, not a famous Dutch theologian, but the incredible owner of Hearts and Minds Books.  Byron introduced me to Wendell Berry, famous American agrarian theologian and poet.  Kuyper's oft repeated quote about what God considers His and the essays by Berry (especially in Home Economics) took my scattered ideals and brought them into sharp focus through the lens of the Scriptures.

The process that began in the early 90s has continued over the years, I cannot separate my belief in Jesus from my compulsion to pick up trash.  Our family motto is "Find a bag, fill a bag!"  Since we are a one-vehicle family (another outcome of our theology) we spend A LOT of time walking around our neighborhood, East Liberty.  So when we see a plastic bag, if it's a white bag we pick up trash, if it's a blue bag then we focus on the aluminum cans and plastic bottles.  So this brings me back to how I feel about the people who drop all this trash.

I have come to see the litter as an outward expression of an inward devastation, a breakdown of who we as humans were meant to be and the insidious and pervasive impact of sin.  My neighbors and friends here in the city don't always see the connection between the trash and their beliefs.  “'Sliberty" is home and they don't "see" the trash in the same way I don't "see" TV antennas and electric lines, they’re just there.  So I am learning not to rant and rave, but to pray.  As I pick up each piece of trash, I try to pray for the "offender."  By praying for the people who drop trash I am literally offering blessings for curses.  I am beginning to see that dropping refuse in other people's yards, that tossing glass bottles to the curb, that leaving used condoms and needles where children play is a tangible statement of belief just as much as picking it up is.  Ideas have legs and as they walk through my neighborhood they can choose to see their actions as momentary and meaningless and crumple up the fast food bag and drop it as they go.  Or they can stoop and serve and see their actions as global, eternal and meaningful, tiny physical acts of redemption and love that don't seem to make a tangible difference…yet.

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