Messy Work

I remember cleaning my room when I was a little tot.  What it really amounted to was clearing toys and clothes off the floor and hiding them under the bed, under the covers, in the closet, and stuck in drawers.  My dad used to say that I spent twice as much energy and time hiding my messes rather than cleaning them up.  If I couldn’t see the mess and if I could convince my parents that the mess was gone, everyone was happy and I could move on with my day to bigger and better things.  As I’ve gotten older, I learned that messes don’t usually go away when you can’t see them.  Usually, they even get a little worse.  Food left out spoils and rots, bills left in piles and stacks slip into collection, and struggling relationships dissolve and crumble.  If we turn our eyes away from messes, we seem to have a childish hope that they’ll just go away.  It’s one of the few areas that our cultural really embraces a child-like faith.  “If I don’t see it, it can’t exist.”

Unfortunately, our culture seems have adopted a similar faith in people experiencing need.    Homeless communities are routinely bulldozed and fire-hosed to make room for more developments and infrastructure.  Large shopping centers are placed in front of housing projects and communities in heavy poverty to raise the aesthetic value of townships to tourists and those passing through on highways and interstates.  Years ago, businesses in parts of inner Los Angeles came up with the solution to install sprinklers on their roofs to discourage homeless from collecting outside of their doors on the sidewalk.  Before the city council banned the practice, business owners would say that they only turned them on when they felt in danger, or when too many people where gathering outside, or when it started to smell bad, or when someone was sleeping, or whenever basically, they felt like it.  Eventually the practice was banned because public sidewalks are in fact public and  it’s bad press when you wash people into the gutter.  At what point is hiding the problem of poverty and homelessness and trying to wash it down the street and into the dark corners of our cities and towns going to make the problem going away?

And what’s so terrible is I understand.  I get it.  I was raised with the myth of social mobility and ideas like, ‘God only helps those who help themselves.”  I know what is going through people’s minds.  I know why businesses don’t like people who are dirty and smelly sitting outside their doors.  This culture has taught me from a very early age that there’s something wrong with you if you’re sitting there.  There’s something wrong with you if you’re not successful.  You’ve done something wrong.  You didn’t work hard enough.  You didn’t fight long enough.  You didn’t pull your bootstraps hard enough.  If you hear something enough times, you’re bound to believe at least parts of it.  Internalization works both ways though.  There are those in our culture that believe some people are messes and are not worth our attention, and there are those in our culture that feel they’re a mess and not worth any attention.  Now that’s heartbreaking.  Now that’s darkness.  That is the dirt under our carpets, the toys in our closet, and the dirty clothes under the bed.

So how do we change it?  We quit looking away.  We start telling stories.  We start making some friends outside of those who look like us and live like us.  We might learn some names, and hear some stories.  I think that this is a first-step.  This is accountability to God and ourselves that we will never leave anyone behind, that God still cares, that the systems that we have built with our own hands will never be good enough, but that God is good enough to provide deep, lasting, and contagious care for all creation.