A few weekends ago, I travelled with a group of high school students to Benton Harbor, Michigan to work with a local nonprofit ministry.
Upon arriving, the host for the week pointed beyond the church parking lot and past the fence to a building and said, “That’s your project this week.”
The building, once a house, stood stripped of shingles and guarded by the weeds of an overgrown lawn. Behind the plywood doors, the room reeked of mold. Broken window frames with dirt-smeared, fractured panes of glass lined the walls. An old shoe. Some old tools. No stairs, but a hole in the ceiling to the second floor.
The pastor’s husband had looked at the building, one of the last remaining eyesores in one of Benton Harbor’s small neighborhoods, and said, “I wish we could just tear it down.”
It’s cheaper, however, to hand high school students a few paint brushes and hammers than to pay for a demolition crew.
One of the high schoolers had been in Detroit earlier that week on another service trip. While he was picking up trash one day, a man pulled up in his car alongside the curb, rolled down his window and said, “Come on. You’re wasting your time. Just get out of here.”
He didn’t. He stayed and picked up trash. The man was probably right—by now, the lot is probably littered with plastic bags, fast food wrappers, and dirty diapers again.
That’s one way to look at it, of course. Another is to imagine the pile of trash that would be there if nobody ever tried in the first place. Trying is never useless. Useless is the voice that tells you it’s a waste of time to siphon water out of a sinking raft because the boat is only going to sink anyway.
Pessimism, criticism, and cynicism are easy to slip into. For me, at least. The desolate building in Benton Harbor and the lot of trash in Detroit remind me of cinderblock skeletons in Ghana, Jamaica, and many other countries across the world. Learning about development—local, national, and international—doesn’t seem to help. There’s no consensus on what works and what doesn’t. There are positive and negative ramifications to all methods.
Short-term mission trips and week-long service projects, such as the high schoolers’ brief visit to Benton Harbor, come under intellectual fire and critical eyes. The work, too, is torn apart. Not only how the work is done, but what work is done.
When I tell people that the high schoolers painted a building, cleaned up weeds and replaced broken doors, people ask me what the building is for. “Nothing,” I say. “I’m not even sure it’s safe to be in there.”
They look at me as if the work didn’t matter.
I believe there’s a fine place for intellect and constructive criticism in all endeavors—whether that be development or science or art. I also believe, however, that there are moments when criticism needs to step out and wonder needs to fill a very deep void.
“The iPhone is like a pen in our hands,” Rachel Lowry, the author of the article, wrote. “Good or bad, the pen itself will never write poems, but the poets will.”
It’s not so much about the photo itself, is it? It’s about the eye behind the lens or, in the case of an iPhone, a screen. It’s about the element of wonder in someone’s life that enables her to see an entire eternity in one small moment or an entire universe in one small object. It’s about possibility.
In Benton Harbor, while the pastor’s husband said he wished they could tear the building down, his wife, the pastor, stood before the congregation and shared a passage from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem, “Aurora Leigh.”
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees takes off his shoes.
I had to leave the trip before the work began. I wasn’t there when the high schoolers pulled brush from the yard or cut the grass and weeds back from the sidewalk. I wasn’t there when they tore off the rotting wooden shutters and painted the walls a deep, charcoal gray and the doors and trim a burnt orange.
And yet, I have to believe that building burns.
Cassie Westrate (’14) graduated with a double major in writing and international development studies. She currently lives in West Michigan, where she works as a writer, hangs out with her pet bird, and fights crime by night. Just kidding about the crime.