Dreaming Small: A Meditation on Building Bridges
On May 2, 2019, Helms and I were honored by MeckMin, our regional interfaith alliance, with their “Bridge Builder Award.” What follows are our comments upon receiving this award during the organization’s annual celebration breakfast.
Good Morning to all. We are so grateful to receive this award. We want to thank MeckMin for the many years of promoting interfaith collaboration for building understanding, compassion and justice in our community. We have been part of many of those efforts during our 15 years here, and anticipate continuing to work with you to build community in our region.
While we stand here, we want to honor several groups from our context who have brought us to this point today. First, the neighbors of Enderly Park. We have shared life with the saints of Tuckaseegee Road, and the life of our neighborhood and its people has transformed us. We are so grateful. We offer our thanks to those who have taught us to be faithful to God and neighbor through their words and deeds. We include among those people who are still alive - family, friends, mentors - and those who have already crossed over to be with the ancestors. We know that we warm ourselves by fires we did not light. We are grateful to stand in a tradition of wisdom that continues to guide us. And, we offer our humility and respect this morning to the Catawba people and their ancestors, whose land we stand on now, and whose land was taken from them by our ancestors, as well as to the enslaved people whose bodies and labor were taken from them to build this Empire and its economy. We honor all of those people, and commit ourselves to the work of repair and restoration.
I seem to be in meetings with some regularity where I am asked, “What are you doing to get people out of poverty?”
I’m concerned about the poor and am doing ministry alongside the poor. But, really and truly, this question isn’t meant for me.
That’s because the question assumes some things that I don’t. It assumes that the answer to economic disparities and opportunity gaps lies at the will and work of the heart and hands of the poor. If we just got the poor stabilized, taught them the right strategies, coded them with the correct language, and helped them understand the values of hard work, savings accounts, respectable living and compliance, the poor would be able to get out of poverty and our work would be done.
Nope. I’m not convinced. Getting persons out of poverty is not my concern.
Greg: What are you doing to get people out of poverty?
“I’m doing dishes” is my favorite reply. I confess that this is intentionally obstinate, but I’m just not very interested in the question. What I suspect such an interlocutor really means is “What are you doing to get the oppressed to be more like their oppressors?” The questioner wants a big idea. But I want a small one, an idea infinitely attentive to the little details of its place. That is the only idea right-sized for transformation.
Two of our heroes, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin of the Catholic Worker movement, used to talk about “building a new society in the shell of the old.” They dreamed of the dismantling of “this filthy, rotten system,” replaced by a re-imagining of society altogether. They wanted to re-create a social good beginning from the margins, with God’s beloved poor at the center. And this necessarily meant starting small, in the faith that the goodness done in small ways by kinfolk around tables and sinks could be the basis for renewing our common life. Their Catholic Worker communities were built from the bottom up. (Re-imagining does not work the other way around, from large and top-down to the small - task forces and special committees, and the billionaire banks and foundations that run them, inevitably recycle systems of domination. Reforming a domination system is a fool’s errand.) Life and liberation are possible only by beginning with the small, the forgotten, and the ignored, those out on the margins.
R.S. Thomas, the Welsh priest and poet, once wrote an elegy for a deceased neighbor, who was a man of the earth, deeply attached to his place. The poem ends like this: “What to do? Stay green,/ never mind the machine/ whose fuel is human souls./ Live large, man, and dream small.”
If we, the faithful of Creator God from our various traditions, are to be part of transforming this society into a place of justice and light, it will not come from dreaming big, but rather from dreaming small - in fine-grained detail, accounting for every little thing. Such a dream will need to begin with the forgotten people, on the edges of the Empire, who have suffered daily under the weight of someone else’s big structures. God has not forgotten those people, and their imaginations remain fecund enough to create the kind of alternative that can liberate us all.
The question I’d rather answer is,
What are you doing to recreate and re-imagine a way in which no one is poor, all needs are met, and we are working together for the common good?
And the answer...
We are doing the dishes.
With welcome extended, the meal is been eaten. The stories are shared. Hands immersed in cleansing waters, every scrub is a prayer for relief; every rinse, a prayer for healing. We are reminded of the words of a faithful ancestor, Brother Lawrence: “do our common business wholly for the love of God.”
The cleansing waters of our neighborhood, Enderly Park, come from the Irwin Creek watershed. Here, at Covenant, the cleansing waters are from the Sugar Creek watershed. Others of you this morning come from the watersheds of Stewart Creek, and Briar Creek, and McAlpine Creek, and McMullen Creek. All of these waters are eventually united in the Catawba River.
What happens at the sink basin happens in the creekbed, happens in the soil, gets at the root, and extends to wide reaches. Our call to recreate and reimagine is to wade into these waters, to dive deeply into a way of life that reflects our intertwined connectedness to one another as brother, sisters, neighbors, and friends.
So how do we get from here to there? From the here that is: a dated reliance on old models and oppressive systems. To there: where we have created new systems, villages of abundance where all needs are met and the common good is cultivated.
To get from here to there, we’ll build a bridge. Deeply rooted in the things that cannot be changed- our faith, our ancestors, our place- we will stretch and bend, we will make meaningful connections across difference. When things seem not to be working, we will let go of favorite ideas and rehearse new pathways. We will make generative use of sustained uncertainty.
We’ll do all the small things you need to do to build a new bridge, a new village, a new community….one dish at a time.