Autumn 2015‎ > ‎

2. Lessons from a Not So Vacant Lot

In the last issue of Perspective, we published Bob Sweetman’s laudatio when Rachel McGuire’s PhD was conferred. Bob commented on the embeddedness of Rachel’s scholarship in her “complicated volunteer work among the vulnerable” of Rochester NY, where she served as a Baptist pastor. We invited her to share something about this work. Rachel is currently a consultant with Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, developing a six-year plan for continuing education, online programs, and community engagement.
by Rachel McGuire

“…then the Lord God formed the human being out of the dust of the ground … and the Lord took
and put the human being in the garden of Eden to till it and take care of it.” (Genesis 2:7 and 15)

Around four years ago, after many years of working hard and thinking big about social justice, in desperation I pulled some strawberries out of my back yard, threw them into a cardboard box with a trowel and a watering can, and drove over to the corner of Denver and Parsells. I’d been feeling the pain of young people in our city, and that morning read in the paper that incidents of youth violence were increasing on that corner. I also knew that a struggling sister church in my denomination stood there. Having exhausted myself with every effort and strategy imaginable to work for change, I collapsed into the only thing I could think to do – plant strawberries.

I arrived to a dusty trash-covered lot across from a convenience store where young people, mostly men, gather. The dirt was dry and hardened with evidence of the foundation of the demolished house that once stood there. (Rochester has thousands of such lots. Neighbors come out and watch the contractors who demolish the houses to ensure that they don’t bury the poisonous waste after the city inspector goes home for the night.) In a fit of utter irrationality, I climbed out of my car and plopped myself on the grass near the fence line, and began hacking at the concrete-like earth, pressing green plants into it for what was likely to be (and indeed was) a brief existence. After a few minutes a young man (maybe 12 years) came tentatively toward me and asked what I was doing. I explained about the strawberries. He looked at me suspiciously, saying, “I think they need water.” I said, “I know, but I don’t have any.” He offered to get some, and soon this small-framed boy was dragging a heavy full watering can down the street from a neighbor’s home. I treasure this image, and also seeing him later in the season, literally dragging a zucchini home that nearly matched his size and weight.

I began dedicating myself to showing up weekly, at the same hours, so that the children and neighbors would know when I would be there – no agenda, no big plan for social change, simple friendship and solidarity – and, of course, as Los Angeles gardener Ron Findley says, “you get strawberries.” And cabbages, and collard greens, and herbs, and tomatoes, and flowers, and all manner of holy wonder. And hopeful human to human relationships in the midst of struggle.

This dusty abundant lot is off the beaten path of most Rochesterians who are “making it.” And, yet, with patience and presence, it yields its lessons. I’ve learned a lot about the trauma of generations of institutional racism. I’ve learned that trust is very difficult to achieve under these circumstances, and that if I want real relationship I will have to endure discomfort and truth-telling and sometimes overt hostility. And that I can, and that it is so very worth it. I’ve learned about the abundance of the earth, and how it can overflow with riches when lovingly tended. And how children love the earth naturally, and welcome invitations to connect. As Chicago urban gardener Will Allen says, “It’s all about the soil!” And this is true on all scales. The solutions to climate change are rooted in a new healthy relationship to the soil. Google “regenerative agriculture” and “carbon sequestration” if you want some hope on that front. I’ve had opportunity to contemplate privatization and public space. We saw Occupy Rochester and along with Occupy movements throughout the world put tents up in our cities – forcefully creating public space in a time of extreme privatization. This little public space available on a public lot generated gatherings and conversations about the struggles and challenges of common life. People who live deep within situations that I once only contemplated from a distance – people with the actual knowledge of those situations – gathered and shared knowledge and formed new relationships in ways that benefit the community at large. Public space matters. I learned a lot about the justice system and the constant breaking apart of families due to incarceration (often based on disproportionately applied drug laws), and about the differing experiences of policing, my experience of feeling protected while my friends feel dominated. I witnessed what Michelle Alexander researched in her work on mass incarceration (The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness). She says that Jim Crow laws never ended. They just morphed into more hidden and sophisticated forms. There are more black men in jail, on parole, or on probation now in the U.S. than were enslaved in 1850. I had time week after week to contemplate the roots of colonialism and its assumption that the world is a blank slate – that neighborhoods and whole nations are canvases waiting for imperial and gentrified visions – and the violence of this way of thinking. So many times, I heard friends say, “there is no one downtown anymore.” And, yet I could see plainly that the streets were full. What could account for this sense of imagined blankness, this false sense that no one and nothing is in a place?

In the fascinating artistry of the Creator of the universe, the world and all its wonders can be witnessed and contemplated from a street corner – one that, I must now confess, after years of hugs and laughter and friendship and deep conversation and strawberries, was only vacant in my colonized and impoverished imagination. It always was and always will be full of the irrepressible and sacred life that is the heart of this creation.