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