March 21st, 2007 |
Every Tuesday morning I hear a garbage truck rumbling about in my neighborhood. The two trash cans behind my house are packed with plastic bags full of yuck — a week’s worth of waste destined for a pickup and a trip to the landfill.
Last Tuesday I didn’t just hear the sound of a garbage truck; I rode on one, and spent an eight hour shift picking up trash and garbage all over town.
You may recall, from my last Notes, that I was arrested for trespassing when I refused to leave my congresswoman’s office because of her vote supporting the president’s plan to send more troops to Iraq. For that, the judge gave me the choice of paying a $50 fine or doing a day’s worth of community service. I chose community service.
One e-mail I received after my sentencing read: “I thought you did your community service by sitting in congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito’s office.” Perhaps, but the judge wanted more than a pound of flesh; he wanted my full weight.
For my community service I chose to work on a Charleston garbage truck. The job seemed fitting, considering the fact that my congresswoman has contributed to the mess in Iraq by having been joined at the hip with Mr. Bush’s war policy.
A friend e-mailed me a rather humorous message. It was a warning: When Judy says “you stink,” after a day on the garbage truck, don’t take it personally.
Depositing my clothes next to the washing machine, I took my sore body to the shower. Soaking and soaping up, I realized that garbage collecting requires the use of a whole different set of muscles than does preaching.
This issue of Notes addresses the subject of — you guessed it — garbage.
Riding The Garbage Truck With A Walking, Talking Civics Lesson
The next time you hear someone say that people are ignorant, or hear yourself say that the average person on the street is stupid, say “garbage.” I’ll tell you why.
The garbage truck driver, Mr. Rodriguez, lives with his wife in Montgomery, just up the river from Charleston. Five days a week (more, if he’s needed and wants some overtime) he makes the 30 minute drive to the lot where his garbage truck awaits him.
Shortly after 7:00, Mr. Rodriguez begins his route, a trip that takes him to all parts of the city. Last Tuesday he had two rookies riding with him — myself and a young black woman working off her community service.
Arriving on the east end of the city, just a few blocks from where Judy and I live, we began the job of lifting plastic bags from trash cans and tossing them into the back of the truck. I lived out a childhood fantasy by hanging on the back of the truck between stops.
Mr. Rodriguez showed me how to operate the three levers on the side of the truck — levers which set a large metal crusher in motion that crushes, slices and compacts the trash. The crusher demands respect because a worker could get hurt if his arm or fingers were in the wrong place. I remembered two of the men I had shaken hands with back at the Sanitation Department before boarding the truck. They were missing fingers.
Pretty soon a newspaper photographer arrived on the scene to take pictures—pictures that would wind up on the front page of the morning Charleston Gazette. Cameramen from the local television stations also showed up, following the truck and doing interviews.
One of the reporters asked Mr. Rodriguez if he would be willing to talk to the camera. Never having been interviewed for television, he was a bit nervous.
Back in the truck, I couldn’t wait to ask him how the interview went and what he had said. He told me that the cameraman had asked him what he thought about me breaking the law by sitting in the congresswoman’s office. His response made me smile.
He told the reporter that we live in the United States and we have the First Amendment, which allows people to express their opinions and follow their conscience. That’s what it means to live in the United States. People have a right to speak up.
“Mr. Rodriguez,” I said, “you are a walking, talking civics lesson.”
Like other folks I know, I am capable of trash-talking about how Americans are dumb and don’t know what’s going on in this country. I need to be reminded that the people who collect my trash, wait on me at a local restaurant, change my oil, deliver my mail, check me out at the grocery store, police my neighborhood, sweep the floors and empty bedpans at the hospital down the street, and do a multitude of unsung and often invisible jobs, really do know what’s going on, because they live and work close to reality.
Mr. Rodriguez’s wife teaches special education children. Free time is spent with her. For fun he loves to fish out where it’s quiet. Like many working class people, he is busy doing the down-and-dirty work that is so essential for a city. These folks may not read The New York Times or explore the web for news from a comfortable living room chair, but they know how their country works and where the pluses and minuses exist.
I think about what life in Charleston would be like if there were no Mr. Rodriguez’s and garbage were left to pile up in the streets and back alleys. I think more people, without having to be sentenced by a judge, should take a day out and ride on a garbage truck.
U.S. Military Personnel Treated Like Trash
Speaking of The New York Times, Bob Herbert, that newspaper’s excellent columnist, talked trash in a recent article.
He said: “U.S. troops have been treated like trash since the beginning of Mr. Bush’s catastrophic adventure in Iraq.” He goes on to wonder if the American public has forgotten the Tennessee National Guard soldier “who dared to ask Donald Rumsfeld why the troops had to go scrounging in landfills for ‘hillbilly armor’ — scrap metal — to protect their vehicles from roadside bombs?”
Headed toward the city landfill, up a hollow and out of sight to city residents, I think of what a wasteful nation we are. I don’t just mean the trash we generate daily. I’m talking about how many people we waste in war — over 3,200 U.S. troops, 24,000 wounded men and women, and God knows how many Iraqis dead, wounded and homeless.
Barack Obama has been dumped on by critics, Republicans and Democrats alike, for having said in his first presidential news conference that the lives of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq were “wasted.” He had to apologize for having used that word — wasted.
My ears perk up when I hear that word. If you remember, it came into being during the Vietnam War when it was used as a synonym for the word killed. Military folks themselves talked about how their buddies were wasted in the war.
Forget the apologies. Why should anyone have to apologize for having spoken the unpleasant truth? As we enter the fifth year of this war, it would help heal our nation’s soul if we could recognize that our political leadership, in the White House and Congress, has wasted lives, trashed the environment in Iraq, and land-filled billions of dollars that could have been used to recycle people living in poverty and despair here and abroad. Recycling this waste must be the number one priority for all of us. If waste has something to do with war and death, recycling has something to do with life and resurrection.
This week I spoke at a ceremony in Clarksburg, where folks gathered to remember military personnel from West Virginia killed in Iraq. After the event, a man approached me with a plea for help. His son, a proud Army recruit, had called home to tell his parents that he had injured his foot badly in training and was in no condition to report for airborne duty. He was eager to go but knew he was in no shape to do the job without getting some medical attention. When he had gone to the Army doctor, he had been told that an MRI would cost too much money, that he should just go on and report for duty.
Walter Reed Hospital once had a fine reputation for taking care of veterans back from war. No more. It is now seen as a trashed facility, where Iraqi veterans have been dumped. And now, on the front end of troop deployment, we seem willing to cut medical corners in order to rush soldiers into combat, often ill-prepared and ill-equipped. If both father and son are willing to make some noise about this situation, I will offer my help.
A Garbage Strike And An Assassination
Here are two questions for you as we approach April 4, the thirty-ninth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis back in 1968. First: Why was he in Memphis? Second: What did he have in his pocket when he was gunned down?
I have just read Michael Honey’s powerful book, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign. It is one of the most important books I have ever read about King. It is transformative in its understanding of King as more than a civil rights leader. As Honey points out, King’s presence in Memphis “brought together the labor struggle, civil rights, and the black religious tradition of prophetic oratory in a marvelous new convergence,”
King was in Memphis to support garbage workers who were on strike. He delivered a series of sermons, and marched with them as they sought better wages and working conditions. Honey writes: “Most whites chose not to see the black working poor, but these workers nonetheless provided the glue that held Memphis together…The invisible sanitation worker was just as important as the doctor in preventing disease, Martin Luther King sometimes said…these workers provided the first line of defense against the rats and diseases that accompanied garbage,”
Exactly one year before his assassination (April 4, 1967), King had delivered an earthshaking sermon at the Riverside Church in New York City. I have mentioned it before in my writings. He spoke out about Vietnam, and used the occasion to link civil rights, poverty and war. It also caused him to lose the support of friends and allies who felt he had gone to meddling by calling attention to the war. By the time King arrived in Memphis, he was weary and beleaguered by the loss of support, and the violence that was emerging in the Black Power movement — a rejection of his message of nonviolence.
Question number two. What did King have in his pocket when he was assassinated by James Earl Ray on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel?
Going through King’s coat pockets after he was killed, one of his aides found a handwritten note, “The Ten Commandments on Vietnam,” refuting the false reason and lies that had been given the American people for going to war in Vietnam.”
I won’t cite all ten, but two are worthy of mention.
• “Thou shalt not believe in a military victory.” Transposed onto today’s war in Iraq, King might well have added these words: For bombs and bullets do not birth democracy and sending more troops to be wasted in war is a disastrous way to achieve peace.
• “Thou shalt not believe that the generals know best.” Perhaps King’s modern revision, if he had lived, would have included the words, “unless they are retired or fired and, thus, are free to speak the truth.”
James Lawson, one of the courageous black clergy who stood with King and the garbage workers, said that King’s death was a “crucifixion event.” According to Honey, Lawson, on the night of King’s death, prayed for the resurrection of hope and the will to carry on.”
The Resurrection Of Hope On A Garbage Dump
April 4, the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, arrives midweek between Palm Sunday—that day Jesus marched into Jerusalem to be ambushed and crucified — and Easter — the day Christians celebrate His resurrection from the dead.
Easter arrives resplendent with lilies, trumpeted music, Easter egg hunts, new clothes, hot cross buns, and sermons about life after death. Church attendance rises as people sense there may, indeed, be something more to life than history’s harsh lessons about death. People truly are desperately hungry for hope.
Speaking of hope, I should mention the flowering of the Cross. In that ritual, the instrument of execution used to inflict death upon anyone who refused to support Rome’s occupation of nations through war, is transformed into a Cross covered with flowers. That ritual brings to mind some antiwar folks who eschewed violence by sticking flowers into the muzzles of rifles held by soldiers ordered to stand firm in the face of their protest.
With all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the Cross and Easter, it would be a travesty to get lost in the pomp and neglect the circumstances that caused Jesus to die.
Jesus was a threat to imperial power. His crime was sedition. He was unpatriotic to Roman authority. Rome embodied violence as a way of life. Jesus embodied and taught a nonviolent way of life. Peacemaking always threatens the entrepreneurs of war. They must be ridiculed, even die for the so-called “good of the nation.”
“King’s radicalism,” says Honey, “stemmed from his understanding of Christianity as a moral belief system that called upon people to apply uncompromisingly the egalitarian teachings of Jesus to the world around them…King’s demanding, even harsh, agenda called upon dedicated people to suffer whatever it took to bring about social change, and his commitment always went far beyond civil rights.” In other words, it was a commitment to stand with exploited, neglected people, and against the powers-that-be who see war as the gold standard for the purchase of peace.
Driving across the desolate landfill last week to dump our load of trash and garbage, I noticed the pipes sticking up from the ground allowing trapped methane gas an escape hatch. I noticed a flame spouting from one of them. Tradition has it that Golgotha, the place where Jesus was crucified, was built upon a garbage dump, Gehenna, where fires brought to mind an apocalyptic vision of hell.
Celtic spiritual leader George McLeod has it right: “I simply argue that the Cross should be raised at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles; but on a cross between two thieves; on the towns’ garbage heap; at a crossroad, so cosmopolitan they had to write his title in Hebrew and Latin and Greek… at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that is where He died. And that is what He died about. That is where church folks should be and that is what church folks ought to be about.”
On March 31, King took a break from Memphis and flew to Washington to preach a prophetic word to more than 4,000 people at the National Cathedral. He called for people to support a crusade for an end to poverty, racism, and war. He said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools.”
That very night, President Johnson, hog-tied by the war in Vietnam and thwarted by that war in his plan to address poverty, announced he would not seek another term as president. He would, he said, spend the rest of his time in office avoiding partisan politics in an attempt to end the war in Vietnam.
At this moment in history, our nation is hog-tied by a stiff-necked president and a soft-bellied congress unwilling to work together in a nonpartisan way to bring an end to the mess we have created in Iraq, and rescue our brave troops from the hell of a civil war our Commander in Chief enabled. Meanwhile, our men and women in the military are being reenlisted and reassigned to three and four tours of duty in Iraq — trips to Gehenna.
Don’t look for a God in heaven to rescue us from this mess we are in. After King’s death, the Memphis garbage workers eventually won their battle. For hope to be resurrected on this fiery garbage heap we have created in Iraq, it will require the same kind of commitment, perseverance, sacrifice, and prophetic witness to nonviolence that King embodied in his imitation of Jesus. The only question left unanswered? Will Americans ride the truck and pick up the garbage?
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