(Note: Permaculture activist and Perennial Veggie Expert, Eric Toensmeier, planted the seeds that sprouted into this sermon. It is based on the true story of Nuestras Raices, a community garden project in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Any mistakes or inaccuracies are purely my own. The Lectionary texts on which this sermon was based may be found here.)
[A Sermon for Proper 10C, delivered July 11, 2010 at a UCC church in Maine]
They never meant to cause trouble. They never meant to agitate, to call attention to the sleeping giant sprawled in front of them. They'd spent their whole lives learning how to stay in the shadows, to say “yes, sir” and “no, ma'am.” They certainly never meant to start anything.
They were a bit like that Samaritan in the story—you know the guy, someone from “Away” with questionable morals and strange habits. You know the sort I'm talking about—they didn't talk right. They were probably even Yankees fans—well, know, I probably shouldn't go THAT far!
But you know the type—they stick out like sore thumbs when you drive into the city. They wear strange clothes—nothing like the locals. When you see two or three of them together, their voices rising and falling with those rapid-fire, unintelligible words, you can't help but feel suspicious. Are they just talking about the high cost of groceries, the poor job market, their efforts to get their kids in a decent school? Or are they looking back at us, talking about us, judging us the way we judge them?
Maybe they're like the prophet Amos. Maybe, like him, they never intended to come here, but something bigger than them was at work. Like Amos, the country bumpkin called by God to take a message to King Jereboam and his high priests. Amos understood cattle, but he didn't understand the ways of the court and the city. He knew how to take care of fruit trees, but he didn't know what to make of the city's power and wealth. He knew a bit about worship, but the city's shrines were full of perfumed prostitutes and the priests' robes glittered with gold. When God gave him the courage and power to speak out, the high priests didn't appreciate his prophecy. When he shared the vision of God's plumb line being held against the city, King Jereboam didn't appreciate the idea that his place didn't measure up... Hold on to that thought. Let me get back to my other story.
Anyone in Holyoke, Mass could have told you those Puerto Ricans didn't belong. Anyone could have told you the way trouble seemed to follow them everywhere, like one of the half-wild dogs that roamed the beaches of their island home, waiting for the tourists to drop a morsel, a crumb, anything that might send their hunger into some partial retreat. Or maybe it was them who followed trouble. I mean, look at the place: block after block of crumbling brick boxes to live in, factories mostly shuttered, jobs vanished almost overnight—for THIS, they'd been sucked in by the lies of the recruiters? For this, they'd left the poverty—and the beauty—of their hardscrabble farms in the warm, green island hills?
Their children were upset, too: sad, angry, confused. The schools didn't know what to do with them—how do you teach a kid to read when their parents can't read either? Never mind that they knew how to raise the best peppers and yams you ever tasted. Never mind that they knew how to slaughter a goat or a pig and use everything but the squeal. If you wanted to live in Holyoke, you had to work the jobs they had available and live where there was room. The city had standards to keep and these people didn't pass all their tests. Thanks to all these immigrants--unwanted, uneducated immigrants--the schools had some of the worst scores in the nation. And what with the crime rate, and the poverty, the urban blight and the poisoned river, well—anyone could guess where the town was going.
The Puerto Ricans knew they were unwanted-- like the English, the Irish, The French-Canadians, the Germans, the Poles, the Jews, and all the other immigrants brought in before them, lured with the same false promises of good work and decent wages. But there they were, stuck in a dead-end post-industrial Northern city, their resources all used up, nowhere else to go, nothing to count on, nobody to turn to. And really, they didn't really mean to start something...
Who can say how it happened? Somebody drew a line in the dirt of an abandoned lot. Somebody planted a seed in a paper cup. Somebody, bored and frustrated, laid off from his construction job, went out and laid into the dirt with a pickax. His neighbor looked out, curious, and brought out a shovel. Then one day they saw the little old abuela, the grandmother, struggling with gallon jugs of water, trying to get enough moisture around the plants to keep them green, maybe even help them grow a little bit. A shy, quiet man surprised himself--and everyone else--with a surge of courage, went to the landowner, and requested permission to use the spigot and bring in two rainbarrels. A jogger stopped to admire the neat little green rows in the abandoned lot and found herself two days later donating a sturdy garden hose.
More people came. The city gave official permission to use the lot, to put up signs and lay out plots and build protective fences. Muscles and friendships grew. Fresh food—good tomatoes and squash, beans and even bright red and yellow peppers to give their meals a taste of home. People with little or no money found themselves trading, bartering squash for tomatoes, peppers for cilantro. When some of the tomatoes went missing, they formed a council to govern the garden. They named their new organization, “Nuestras Raices / Our Roots.” They elected two people to coordinate the plots and watch over everything. The drug dealers didn't do deals in the lot any more; it was always so busy. More people got involved—even local businesses and nonprofits. Everyone wanted to have something to celebrate in a city full of too much bad news.
Nuestras Raices organized workshops on cooking and preserving food. They paired young people up with wise elders who had decades of gardening and life experience to share. As they realized the various needs in the community—and realized their own ability to take action—they began to offer literacy classes, financial planning workshops, voter registration, lessons in civics. As they learned to read and write and organize, they started businesses together. They put on festivals to help others understand and appreciate their foods, their music, their language, their culture.
Mind you, they never meant to start anything. But after five other abandoned lots turned into beautiful community gardens, the city sat up and took notice. “What else would you like to do?” they asked. “We want to be treated with dignity. We want safer places to live. We want our children to do better in school. We want to know why they can't swim or fish in the river. We want to know why they keep getting sick.”
The Mayor's office didn't see it coming. The Town Fathers were less than amused. Who did these people think they were, anyway? Did they even pay taxes? Did they even vote? It was one thing to get to show up for a nice ribbon-cutting now and then. It was another thing altogether to be asked to investigate toxic waste in the inner city. At first, the officials tried to ignore them, but the people wouldn't go away. They held more community meetings. They brought in outside help when they couldn't get answers from City Hall. They enlisted a team of high school students, with all the inquisitive passion of their age, and taught them how to collect scientific data with the support of the Environmental Protection Agency's “Environmental Justice” program. Here's a sample of what they found: between 1988 and 1999, more than 3.5 million pounds of toxic chemicals where released to the environment of Holyoke, mostly by industrial operations in inner city neighborhoods. The chemicals released were known to cause birth defects and learning disabilities in children, to damage lungs and kidneys, to destroy healthy blood cells and cause asthma and cancer, among other things.
The folks at City Hall didn't want to listen. The folks in the prettier, cleaner parts of town didn't want to listen either. Neither did the industry executives. How dare they hold up this kind of plumb line? But the people kept working, kept fighting to be heard, kept gathering allies and organizing. They had found their own voices and their own sense of justice. Their dreams of the past and their resentment of the present had given way to a clear vision of the future and a willingness to press forward together.
What does Holyoke look like now? Yes, there are still problems. But in the inner city, eight beautiful community gardens grow and thrive, tended by people of every age and every color, working together. The garden coordinators have become community leaders, listeners and advocates and problem solvers.
The youth program has grown by leaps and bounds. Now these young people paint murals together, help design and manage the gardens, continue their environmental justice research, and teach other kids how to work for change in their communities.
There is a women's leadership group too, and a green jobs initiative called “Roots Up” that teaches participants how to build and market solar hot water heating systems. There is a training institute that helps people learn what it takes to be successful entrepreneuers and project organizers. Oh, and then there is that land along the river—the place where the city wanted a riverboat casino. Now it has been christened “Tierra de Oportunidades, a community-designed garden and agricultural business incubator with 15 “new beginning” farms, public nature trails, an outdoor stage for concerts and festivals, tropical flowers and crops, a farm stand, and more.
No, they hadn't meant to start anything. Amos didn't mean to start anything either, but God called him from his orchards and his cattle: Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ When he answered God's call to become a voice for justice, he was led among high priests, prophets and kings. He was called to hold a corrupt city accountable—not just to human standards, but to a greater standard of justice and righteousness.
And like the Samaritan, unwelcome traveler, despised foreigner--all his days filled with the taunts, threats, and hurled insults of others—-he never meant to start anything either. Who knows what made his broken immigrant heart more open to God's call for mercy and care? What matters is that he WAS open. He was open and the Spirit moved him to action, perhaps at great personal risk. He accepted the risk, took action, and became a shining embodiment of God's own compassion. This stranger, this unwanted foreigner, reached out and saved a life when nobody in power would. Jesus knew it was a wild thing to suggest-- like saying that, in a neat orchard of apple trees, the best fruit grew on a weedy little grafted tree, a recent transplant with a label that said “mango.”
God never stops trying to surprise us, to shake us out of our sweet repose, to open us to the ongoing work of the Spirit. God never stops showing up in our midst, lonely and hungry, daring us to recognize each other as brothers and sisters of Christ. God is still speaking. Are you ready to listen with all of your being? Are you prepared to embrace your own blessed calling? Perhaps some of you are called to plant seeds of God's kingdom. Perhaps some of you are called to prepare the ground for those seeds. Some may be called to share, far and wide, the healing skill of your hands, the good fruits of your labors. Perhaps some of you are called to reach out, in compassion and solidarity, to those still feel rootless, cut off from justice or joy or peace.
We don't have to be afraid of starting something. We don't have to feel isolated. We don't have to worry ourselves about whether or not we belong. God is right here with us, sharing the work, holding us in a circle of loving accountability, giving us a taste of God's kingdom wherever hope, justice and compassion begin to blossom. And wherever these things blossom, we will all move together towards that wonderful harvest feast where everyone is welcome and we all—every one of us—belong.
Image sources: Puerto Rican farm, Holyoke Brickbox, Community Garden, Mango Tree.