Picking up Trash = Worship?

Meaning emerges from an experience, over time and in many layers. It’s why our stories are so important. We go back to them again and again, deepening the meaning and import. The story that follows is one whose significance continues to evolve. Although the predominant relationship in this story is human to human, by touching on each of the elements of a biocentric morality—a sense of place, attentiveness, gratitude, compassion and service—we can get a sense of what the moral shift from anthropocentric to biocentric might look like.

Members of a small congregation in Rochester, New York, had been trying for months to articulate what they thought would be an appropriate relationship between their church and the neighborhood in which it sat. Simply by the tenor of their question, it was clear that the people of this congregation thought of themselves as distinct from their neighborhood. Questions and ideas circulated; various ministries were proposed and considered, some discarded immediately, others hovering for a while longer.

One father of two teenagers surprised everyone with the odd notion that they were asking the question in the wrong way. It wasn’t What relationship do we want with the neighborhood? but rather, We’ve been in this place for a hundred years. We are the neighborhood, so how do we put that into practice? People were truly surprised by the idea. They had never thought of it like that. It’s the same question that is knocking at our anthropocentrism—not, How might we be in relationship with the earth community? but rather, We are the earth community, so how do we put that into practice?

To the Rochester congregation came an idea so outside the bounds of their experience that the group seemed to suck in its collective breath and then exhale it all of a piece. The idea was this: Beginning with the Last Sunday of Epiphany and continuing through the Sundays of Lent, at the regular worship time, the people would meet at the church for just a song and a prayer, then fan out into the neighborhood to pick up trash. The objections tumbled over each other in their haste to be voiced: “We don’t have to do it during church, we can do it afterwards—we could call it neighborhood outreach.” “What if we find things like discarded needles or condoms?” “What if people are offended?” “What about insurance?” Underneath all this anxiety floated some inarticulate knowing that this was actually going to happen; it was inevitable.

In the frantic and anxious days that followed, the plan was adapted in this way: One group would gather in the chapel to sing and pray for the project and the neighborhood; another would prepare a meal; a third, armed with orange vests, garbage cans, and trash-picking implements, would go out and clean up the neighborhood street by street, block by block. The process would be one of self-selection.

The first Sunday, as this bold congregation gathered at the church door (they didn’t even go in), they were greeted by one of the ministers with the words, “Welcome to our new adventure.” A few chose to remain inside and pray. Others assigned themselves to the lunch crew. But the trash collectors outnumbered them all; vested, partnered and armed with lists of “do not touch” items, they set out like voyagers to a new land.

An hour and a half later, seventeen black garbage bags filled with refuse were deposited at the back door of the church, and the intrepid trash gatherers joined the other groups for a welcome pot of beef barley soup, olives, and cheese. One loaf and one cup of wine made its way around the room, with each person offering to the next—children, adults, elders—one sacramental loaf, one community.

They offered their reflections during that meal and the meals to come, sharing powerful experiences of worship, awe, mystery, and a connectedness to God and to one another that was astonishing. Very simply, they were asking, What is this trash telling us? What stories are we learning about the frustrations, the indifference, the invisibility—church and not-church both? A discarded needle screams a story, maybe of longing and disillusion, rage and powerlessness. Fast food cartons and wrappers tell the story of a kind of poverty that knows it is far cheaper and more filling to swing through Burger King than it is to go to Wegman’s Market. A bag of potato chips costs less than a bag of carrots. Jumbo colas are cheaper than juice.

The members of this small Rochester congregation, in partnership with their neighbors, happened one time upon signs of a broken love in the form of a stash of snow-encrusted photographs, each one torn or blackened by a marker. Was it anger that ripped into the images of intimate moments? Was it grief? Indifference? They were young, these two in the photograph, and looked familiar, as though you’d seen them on the street, holding hands, or walking the soft drink aisle of Tops Market, arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders. Not young only, they looked defiant in these pictures, as though they were challenging the world to keep its distance. Might their expressions have softened had they been held within the embrace of church and not-church? The people of the Rochester congregation began to understand picking up trash as a sacramental act.

The stories of the people of a neighborhood are carried in what they discard, and they are sacred stories. The very fact that trash is tossed in the street, tossed in the yards, the sidewalks, the canal; the fact that there are “do not touch” items on the list (needles and glass); the fact that beer cans, McDonald’s wrappers, and Styrofoam are strewn with abandon—all of it tells the story of we the people, a people disconnected from the earth and the water and the symphony of our own bodies, disconnected from beauty and a holy imagination. Through the stories contained in the trash, the people of this congregation found new respect and regard for the citizens of their own neighborhood, which, they now knew, included themselves. Through these stories, they engaged in an unfamiliar process of formation, finding themselves transformed by their new appreciation of a people’s resilience, hope, and strength.

“I think the earth was pleased,” one man said. People smiled their agreement.

By the second or third week, congregants were joined for the meal by not-church residents of the neighborhood. One of them, a woman whose name was Elizabeth, had brought a basket of cookies. “I never thought I’d see the day that I’d set foot into a church,” she told the woman sitting next to her. “My parents never took us to church.”

The bags of trash numbered over two hundred by the time the sixth Sunday had drawn to a close. The people of the church and the people of the neighborhood had become of one purpose: “to clean things up around here, and show that we care.” Relationships were forged in the intersection of church and not-church. This is how it happens.

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