37th and Nicollet

Saturday, March 25, 2006

A Sermon By Peter House, It's a little churched up

The bulletin board was a thing of beauty. My students and I worked all afternoon on it. It was a bleak day in March and we were longing for spring. We had been scheduled to go on a field trip that day, but icy roads had forced the bus driver to cancel and we were stuck with nothing to do. The kids had been looking forward to a treat so I said "Let's make a really nice bulletin board". We had a large bulletin board in the hallway outside our door and its decoration often was a "down time" project when we needed something to creative to do.
Late March is a bleak time in our part of the world. It has been winter for the better part of five months and true spring is still a good six or eight weeks away. Everyone is restless and anxious, starved for a glimpse of green or blossom, so we decided to make a spring themed bulletin board.
The kids plunged themselves wholeheartedly into the process of making sunflowers, birds, and butterflies out of construction paper. Even though they are teenagers, that day the little kid in them came out and they drew, cut and colored a paper garden of lilacs, tulips, and daffodils. There wasn't even any fighting.
It was one of those rare moments that can sustain a teacher.
When it was finished, it was exceptional. While it had been done by many people of varying skill, it looked as if one artist had created it all. And in many ways, we had all been one artist that afternoon, so unified were we in our common vision and longing for spring. We all stood in the hallway admiring it and everyone that passed stopped for a second and noticed. Even the rowdy boys from the carpentry class noticed as they trooped in from the house they were building down the road and said "Hey nice bulletin board". Normally, if these boys notice my students at all, it is to shout "retards" as they pass us.
For the next several days we received compliments from nearly everyone we saw. Some of my students began arriving late and I when I asked them where they had been they'd say "we were out looking at our bulletin board". It was THAT kind of bulletin board.
One afternoon, about two weeks after it was created, one of my students signed out of the room to go to the bathroom. She immediately burst back into the room shouting "Mr. House, come here quick! Somebody messed up our bulletin board".
I went out and saw that someone had taken a match to it and singed some of the paper flowers, a few of the flowers were ripped down, and one of our paper robins and been decapitated.
I went back into the room and told everyone to stop what they were doing. "We need to fix our bulletin board" I told them.
Even my teaching assistant said "What for? They will only do it again".
"No they won't" I said. "Not if we fix it right away".
And I explained to them something I had learned about fighting graffiti in the inner city.
The first home I owned was in the blighted inner city of Rochester, New York. My partner and I had been "urban pioneers" lured to a "less than desirable address" by a special program that gave money to people like us who were willing to settle there in the hopes that the neighborhood would improve if enough young idealists like us moved in.
We became active in the neighborhood association and learned a lot about how to cope with special challenges our new neighborhood presented. One of the problems was graffiti. It seemed to be everywhere on our street. I had considered it an annoying but harmless eye-sore until I attended a special workshop entitled "Fighting Graffiti in the Inner City". I learned that graffiti was a serious problem. Most of it is related to gang activity and gangs use it to mark their territory (a practice called "tagging"). If it is allowed to remain, it tells the gang "we have conquered this place". It is also a form of visual violence which says to others "This area is unsafe".
We were taught that graffiti must NEVER be allowed to remain. It must immediately and repeatedly be painted over. "If your house is tagged a hundred times you must paint over it a hundred times" the speaker told us emphatically. The tagger receives satisfaction from seeing his work and thinking "I did that". If you deprive him of this satisfaction, he will become discouraged and will look for a place where his work won't be painted over.
I decided to test this theory out. There was an abandoned building two doors down from our house. A tagger had recently left his mark on one of the buildings white doors. I had a can of white paint in the basement and I took it down the street and painted over the door. A few days later I was on my way to work and saw that the tagger had been back and left the exact same tag on the same door. I went back home, grabbed the paint, and did a quick coat which didn't completely cover the graffiti. When I got home that night, I added a second coat. Then I waited for the tagger to come back, but he never did. The theory worked.
Convincing the neighbors that this worked was another matter. There were several houses that had been "tagged" and the discouraged owners painted over it once or twice and then let the taggers win. One poor elderly lady had replaced expensive vinyl siding twice before she gave up in despair.
Fortunately there were enough idealists on the street to have a cookout at which we presented (among other things) the Graffiti Elimination Plan. Enough people agreed to give it a try that for a number of years, Bremen Street was relatively "graffiti free".
I certainly understood the sentiments of the nay-sayers. It seemed counter-intuitive that the way to eliminate graffiti was simply to perpetually paint over it. It seemed so futile, so monotonous, and I think most of all, endless. My neighbors wanted a one-time solution: A graffiti-proof paint, better night-time lighting, alarm systems, security fences. In our modern, western, have-it-all-NOW culture, we've lost sight of the fact that many things need to be done over and over and over again. We have a linear approach to the world which blinds us to all of the repetitive cycles that make up the fabric of our lives.
And worse, we seem to think that when something we've done doesn't STAY done, then either we have failed or it wasn't worth doing at all. My neighbors thought it was a waste of time to keep painting over the graffiti. My students thought it was pointless to repair our bulletin board.
But what would the world look like if we didn't do the same tasks over and over?
That first day when I was repairing the bulletin board, it occurred to me that most of the progress humans have made has been because we have been willing to do the same things over and over. At some level we have understood that THIS is how battles are won and causes are advanced. It is the essence of commitment - that we do the mundane, the boring, the tedious, often over and over for weeks, months, years, and decades even when our work is constantly un-done, sabotaged, or destroyed because we care and because we know that if we don't do it, it might not get done.
In many ways this is also the essence of Unitarian Universalism - The idea that humans are the only agents for change in the world and that change comes through human idealism and activism. And without commitment we have only idealism and idealism alone never changed the world.
The idealism is the easy part. The commitment part is much harder and not very fun. If you look at any unmet need in our society, any societal crisis, any injustice that is currently occurring, I can guarantee you that the problem is not that no idealist has looked at the situation and saw a way to change it. The problem, is that no one has committed to the long, tedious, and initially unrewarding process of systematically and doggedly pursuing change through small steps. The world has lots of idealism without commitment.
I myself have many wonderful ideas that I have yet to commit to putting into action. I'm sure we all do. But we struggle to find the energy. Or we start, only to discover that we have engaged in a process like fighting graffiti.
Earlier we heard the story of Annie Sullivan and how she strove to reach Helen Keller with language. She spelled "D-O-L-L" and "W-A-T-E-R" over and over and over. What if she had given up the second week? What if she hadn't understood that if she didn't do it, it wouldn't get done? What if she had not known that the road she was on would be tedious and repetitive and that she'd see no evidence of success for a very long time?
We can say the same of Ghandi, and Martin Luther King, and Jesus all stories that I don't have to tell you because you know them so well.
We see evidence of the value of commitment and repetition in our daily lives as well. What would your garden look like if you didn't pull the same weeds in the same spots over and over again? What would your relationships become if you didn't fight the same battles, listen to the same stories, massage the same shoulders, make the same favorite pie, over and over again? Anyone who has raised a child has lived a life rich in repetition having read the same bedtime story every night for six months,having reminded the same child of the same rule every day for years on end, and having had the same argument about curfews or what someone else's mother lets someone else do, over and over and over and never relaxing or compromising the standard you've set because you are aware of the consequences and what you are doing is important enough for you to endure the tedium.
How do we sustain ourselves through the repetitive cycles that comprise our lives? I think we need to keep reminding ourselves of the goal. Some things are done repetitively with an end goal in sight. The repetition of child rearing does end and an adult child does emerge. Annie Sullivan had the honor of seeing Helen graduate from college. Taggers eventually stop tagging walls IF they are properly discouraged.
But other things will go on as long as we do. Houses never stay cleaned, and relationships never become static.
Another way we sustain our energy is by learning through trial and error what needs doing and what does not. I decided a few years ago for example that keeping weeds out of my lawn does not need doing at all. It all looks like grass when it's cut short enough!
What are you committed to? What do you do over and over in the hopes that you'll make a difference in the world? How do you sustain yourself?
In his report to the congregation, Michael Durall talked of this congregation's immense capacity to give to charities outside this institution and of the enormous opportunity we have here to make a difference in the world around us. Isn't this beloved community one place we get the energy we need to go out into the world and fight graffiti in the inner city? And if it isn't, ask yourself what needs to change in order to make it that place of sustenance. Do you need to invest more? Do you need to ASK more? Do you need to risk more?
Our bulletin board stayed up from March until just two weeks ago. No one could bring themselves to take it down. Every time it was damaged, the kids and I immediately repaired it and for about the last month, no one touched it. On the last day of school, only Sarah came to school. She had been one of the students who worked most diligently on the bulletin board's creation. She had also been among the most discouraged when it was damaged and she was reluctant at first to invest anymore energy in something that appeared to be a target for vandals.
I asked for her help in stripping the bulletin board and she helped me dismantle our construction paper garden.
At first, she carefully took off each paper flower, bird, and bumble bee trying to save them for future use. But this was nearly impossible because in an effort to make the board vandal-proof, we had traded the staples that first held things up, for glue which made things much harder to rip down. We had spent the last three months preserving our creation it was hard to destroy it. Finally, though Sarah said "When school starts we'll need a fall one anyway and I'm gonna make one with leaves and pumpkins and I'll make extras so if people rip them down I can put them right back up".

I found this here.

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