Urban Farming: Garbage, Jesus, and Good Friday.

A Nicaraguan boy carries a large bag of trash for recycling while fighting with flying vultures in the garbage dump La Chureca, Managua, Nicaragua, 10 November 2004. La Chureca is the biggest garbage dump in Central America. Hundreds of trash recollectors search in tons of smouldering garbage mainly metals (copper, aluminium), others concentrate on glass which is cheap, but in bigger amount. The majority of the recyclers are families with children for whom recycling is a regular job. The children very often eat the food they find on the dump, none of them goes to school, they suffer from skin diseases, they have high levels of lead and DDT in blood. Photo by Jan Socher
A Nicaraguan boy carries a large bag of trash for recycling while fighting with flying vultures in the garbage dump La Chureca, Managua, Nicaragua, 10 November 2004. La Chureca is the biggest garbage dump in Central America. Hundreds of trash recollectors search in tons of smouldering garbage mainly metals (copper, aluminium), others concentrate on glass which is cheap, but in bigger amount. The majority of the recyclers are families with children for whom recycling is a regular job. The children very often eat the food they find on the dump, none of them goes to school, they suffer from skin diseases, they have high levels of lead and DDT in blood. Photo by Jan Socher

(This blog post appeared on Good Friday, April 3rd, 2015, as part of a Holy Week series for Presbyterians for Earth Care).

In 2012, the world generated 2.6 trillion pounds of garbage with over half of that amount going into landfills around the planet.

Those landfills are home to 1% of the global population. Children and their families who are the poorest of the poor live on the outskirts of landfills. Many use these landfills as a place of work—trading garbage for cash or consuming salvageable waste in order to survive. What was food for the dogs and flies becomes food for a family.

  • La Chureca is the largest garbage dump in Central America, located on the edge of Managua. One thousand people live and work on the “City of Trash” every day. There is even an elementary school located on the dump with six classrooms.
  • More than 2,000 families live on the Bantar Gebang landfill that lies outside Jakarta, Indonesia.
  • Thousands of families call the Tultitlan garbage dump in Mexico City home while spending 12 hours a day, in scorching hot sun, looking for recyclable materials to sell and make less than a dollar a day.
  • The Veolia landfill 100 miles south of Atlanta, Georgia, known to locals as “Trash Mountain,” received toxic coal ash from a massive spill that occurred in December 2008 at a Kingston, TN power plant. Taylor County, where Veolia landfill is located, is 41% African-American and more than 24% of its residents live in poverty.

In the time of Jesus, Gehenna was the landfill located just south of Jerusalem. This was the city dump of Jesus’ time. When Jesus would speak of hell, it is thought he was speaking of Gehenna which was filled with the household trash, Empire’s leftovers, and bodies of the dead. With no sanitation or plumbing systems in Jerusalem, people would toss their urine and feces into the streets. Imagine this: the streets of Jerusalem steaming with human shit and pee as Jesus was taken to the Imperial cross of execution. The Roman Empire closed in on Jesus and his followers, and Jesus’ final footsteps on the planet were pressing upon the garbage ridden streets of Jerusalem.

As a small child in La Chureca landfill picks through garbage, as birds and dogs and flies hover over the “what is left,” there, too, is Jesus’ body, naked, broken resting upon the planet’s garbage. It is with the poorest of the poor, the poor who make a home and eat dinner in garbage dumps, where Jesus rests his body each and every day, pushing us to see garbage as sacred.

It’s all sacred. All of it. The plastic water bottles. The rotting meat. The Styrofoam. Ripped Clothing. Banana peels. Broken bicycles. Flies. Rats. Dogs. The poop of the rats and dogs. Seagulls. Children of the garbage dumps. Their school. Every bit of the “what’s left” is sacred and holy.

There is no division of the sacred and the profane. In fact there is no profane. On this Good Friday, we sit at the foot of the cross, an Imperial cross that might have been possibly littered with trash and human feces from Gehenna and Jerusalem, a cross soaked with blood and dripping flesh. Without mercy, Jesus was nailed to a cross with those viewed as human garbage hanging next to him. It is in the nailing that Jesus nails us to each other.

From my garbage in Arlington, VA, to the sanitation workers of Arlington County who pick it up, to the garbage ridden waters of the Anacostia River which borders Washington D.C., to the the poor living near the Veolia landfill to the families of Bantar Gebang; to Gehenna and the human waste of Jerusalem, the nails on the cross today pierce together what is seen and treated as the waste of the planet.

Ecofeminism stretches us to embrace it all as sacred, to see how each and every bit of what’s treated as garbage, the human and the material, are nailed together.

On this Good Friday, we sit and wait. Together. Nailed together as the planet continues to be pierced, broken, torn, and rendered. As your hands and arms stretch out today to toss away a piece of garbage, as your hands and arms extend to pick-up garbage, we remember the ones who live, eat, live, learn and are family on a garbage dump. Today we remember Jesus and his outstretched arms, executed in a city that looked and smelled and was a garbage dump.

Prayer: Holy One. Holy One of garbage and landfills. We are nailed together. Garbage and all. May we never, ever forget it.

Garbage Can Turned into a Font

Robin Nagle, anthropologist in residence for Dept of Sanitation, NYC
Robin Nagle, anthropologist in residence for Dept of Sanitation, NYC

While on sabbatical, I met with Robin Nagle, anthropologist-in-residence for the Dept of Sanitation in New York City. Robin taught a seminar at Union Seminary in NYC on "Garbage and Sacredness" and once I saw this title, I wanted to meet her. I found Robin's email on Google, fired off some emails and soon enough, had a time set-up. This is what I learned from my time with Robin---everything is sacred, and everything is garbage.

All of life is temporal---everything will and must die. I'll die. You'll die. The computer I'm typing on will become garbage. Everything will be discarded--making it garbage.

And everything is sacred.

If everything is garbage and sacred, Nagle argues, then why are sanitation workers treated like garbage, their role in the public health of an urban landscape like NYC deemed invisible? What's sacred? What's profane? And who the hell gets to decide?

What environmental crises can we trace back to garbage? What do we learn about the values of a home, community, city, and planet by what people discard?

This is what I love about work like Robin's:

1) It makes me feel more creative.  Sacredness and garbage? Never thought of that connection before. That's creativity.

2) I love nerding out on a theory or methodology, seeing how it's translated into liturgical life.

When I returned from sabbatical, I preached that Sunday of Labor Day weekend. It was also the 50th anniversary remembering the March on Washington. MLK, Jr. was executed while marching with striking sanitation workers in Memphis, TN.

I seized the moment and focused on sanitation workers in liturgy.

I prepped by watching "At the River I Stand", a documentary of the Memphis sanitation workers. It shows the horrors of being a sanitation worker in Memphis and the community organizing efforts that eventually gained the workers a contract with the city.

In the documentary, sanitation workers and their supporters were shown at a rally in a church sanctuary a few days before MLK, Jr. arrived the first time in Memphis. The offering that night was collected in.....garbage cans.

*light bulb*

We can do that. Off to Home Depot I went to buy two large metal trashcans and several small ones.

i am a man
i am a man

I spray painted "I Am A Man" on the sides of each can---the words on striking sanitation worker's signs.

Three of the small cans were used to collect our offering during the worship service.

One big can was placed in front of the communion table.

One big can became our font. I took the big glass bowl off our baptismal stand and placed it one top of the garbage can. I put garbage in the font. Why?

Garbage Can as Pilgrims Font
Garbage Can as Pilgrims Font

Because everything is sacred, and everything is garbage. Our font symbolizes the Church will honor our sacredness throughout all of life, even through death when we become dust and compost. In our baptism, we tend to the planet as sacred. The words, "I Am a Man?" That's baptismal language.

As I reflect, "garbage can as font" informed my energy for taking ashes into the streets on Ash Wednesday-- being present with workers considered irrelevant, invisible, and the bottom of the labor chain. Ashes claim solidarity in life and death. It's the role of liturgy, in a sanctuary and on the streets, to make that solidarity visible.