Thursday, December 4, 2014

Saga of church's dumpster shows the difference between institutionalized religion and doing unto others as Jesus taught

Nine years. Nine long years.

That's the number of years since I first sat down at the dais for my inaugural Garland Plan Commission meeting as a city-appointed representative from District 2. At that time, my colleague and friend, Stan Luckie, the at-large representative on the Plan Commission, leaned over to me and asked softly, "When are you and your neighbors going to do something about that illegal dumpster in the MAC parking lot at First Baptist Church?"

"You mean that dumpster really IS illegal?" I replied. I had been studying that dumpster for several years and wondering—

* why is it situated so close to our neighborhood;
* why does it look so ugly and smell so bad;
* who allowed it to be placed in that location in the first place;
* why wasn't it placed in the proper enclosure the city requires of all dumpsters situated near residential neighborhoods; and
* why did city garbage trucks that emptied it always arrive so early in the mornings six days a week and make so much noise, especially on Saturday mornings, when we and our neighbors were trying to sleep?

Thus began an odyssey that is almost too unbelievable (and embarrassing) to write about, except that it is true. Such a simple thing as getting that church dumpster properly housed in a legal, gated and locked enclosure (the same requirement as made of other commercial entities in Garland) should never have taken nine long years. But it did. And along the way I learned more about the politics of a neighboring church and our city—and their strange dance together—than I ever cared to learn.

Thinking it would be a simple matter to get the dumpster either removed or placed in a legal structure, shortly after Stan made his comment I conferred with my City Councilwoman at that time, Laura Perkins Cox, of District 2. Perky, as we all called her, dutifully raced over to our neighborhood, took pictures of the dumpster, and made a few notes about it. Of course the unprotected dumpster was illegal and violated city code, she said. She promised to get the matter taken care of promptly.

A few weeks later after nothing had happened, Perky rather quietly told me the matter was taking longer than she had expected and that she was running into more opposition than she had anticipated.

I firmly believe the whole matter boiled down to two basic issues:

1. City personnel were scared to confront this particular church about a wrongdoing.
2. The church didn't want to listen to anyone trying to tell it that it had done something wrong.

Complicating the matter is the kingmaker role that First Baptist Garland has played for many years in Garland city politics. For too many decades to recount, many Garland politicians (mayor and city council wannabe's) believed the myth that they couldn't get elected without the blessings of First Baptist. Such was—and still is—the exaggerated political clout of this one congregation.

Also complicating the matter was the fact that many of the city's employees are good, solid Christian, church-going, God-fearing men and women who truly want to believe the best about a church and about people. I'm glad the city hires these kinds of workers , but . . . sometimes this kind of blind adoration can cause a church's shortcomings to be overlooked and excused.

Churches are finite institutions composed of human beings capable of error. Certainly the U.S. constitution gives individuals freedom to worship as they please. But that freedom doesn't give a church the right to impose a health and safety nuisance on its neighbors. Freedom of religion has no greater champion than I am. But just being a church doesn't by any means give it a pass on health, safety, and building codes and any other laws established to protect the public good and which must be honored by all citizens in a city.

In my professional career as a journalist who spent decades writing about organized religion in every form, I have seen many church institutions up close. I have never lost my faith in God despite my seeing the warts of many houses of worship of all stripes. My wife and I are believers, regular church attenders, and contributors. But I am certainly glad that long ago I learned the difference between faith in God Almighty and the actions of institutionalized religion! They definitely are not one and the same.

Finally, one city department head took up the gauntlet. He may have been motivated by some pictures I took of uninvited individuals prowling inside the church's dumpster—throwing Christmas ornaments, papers, and even an old printer on to the sidewalk and street and then hauling off materials, leaving trash in their wake. The pictures clearly showed that the open and ungated dumpster was luring an unwanted element to the neighborhood. It also was allowing litter to blow into the neighborhood and create a nuisance for nearby homes. Whatever it was, I'm grateful that finally after nine years someone was able to muster the courage to stand up and say flatly, "This is wrong! This is not being a good neighbor. This will not continue. The church will become law-abiding. This church will abide by the same set of standards as is required for everyone else in Garland including other churches." How I and our neighbors deeply appreciate this city department and this man and his associates who firmly pursued this matter day after day despite all obstacles.

Sadly, the church dragged its heels to the bitter end. On the last hour of the last day before the city was set to move legally against the church, a church leader agreed to do the right thing. But even then, the foot-dragging continued. Though the church is busy planning a $22-million building expansion, the leader is reported to have said he didn't know a contractor who could build the legally required shelter for the dumpster. At that point the city produced a list of six contractors and basically instructed him, "Pick one!"

I am really proud of this city employee, who under the special encouragement of current District 2 Councilmember Anita Goebel, deserves a special commendation for his courage, skill, ethics, and sense of rightness. I've chosen not to name him publicly, because as I have seen, institutionalized religion doesn't always do the right thing to people that hold it accountable.

Maybe, just maybe, someone wanting to defend the unChristian attitude we encountered for nine long years will remember two basic teachings of Christ:

1. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

2. Love your neighbor as yourself.

Every year this particular church tosses a cookout advertised as being for the community. It invites neighbors surrounding the church and others for an evening of complimentary burgers and the trimmings. This is commendable, but it can come across as merely shallow window-dressing when the church doesn't take responsibility for its actions that damage its neighbors just one block away.

Today, after all this wrangling, an attractive, compliant dumpster enclosure that is an asset to the church and a much better witness to its neighbors is almost ready for use. Yesterday workers poured the final concrete needed for the structure. Now only gates and a proper lock remain to be added.

But the question lingers: Why, oh why, did it take so long?