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An Augustinian Encounter With A Garbage Truck

by Jeremy Hiers, OSA

A few days ago I was driving home from work in crowded south Philadelphia.  Just as I turned down a narrow one-way street about two blocks from the Friary where I live, I spotted a garbage truck just ahead.  By the time I discovered the truck, it was too late to backup and proceed to another route.  I was stuck behind the truck as it crawled its way down the one-way street.  

Suddenly after a busy day with ministry, I had nothing to do other than pause and watch as the workers dumped mounds of trash into this truck.  House by house they dumped four or five bags of trash at a time, compressing it over and over again so they could fit more in.  

Some of the loose trash escaped as it was blown by the wind back onto the sidewalk; it would be left for me to pass by as I took my walk the next day.  Liquid from spoiled milk and sauces from discarded food continuously spewed out from underneath the truck gallons at a time just to become washed into the sewer and become part of our water system here in Philadelphia.  

After about 25 minutes of gradually becoming disgusted by the site of this truck, I sensed something I hadn’t really thought about before.  This is just one truck, on one street, in one city, on one trash collection day.  This happens hundreds of thousands of times a day in cities across the world.  What more do I need to acknowledge that I throw away a lot more than I probably need to?  

After all, this is nothing I wasn’t already aware of.  I have known in my mind for a long time the damage that I and WE are causing to the environment.  In college I even took a field trip to a landfill, noticing on the trip to and from that the neighborhoods didn’t seem to be the best neighborhoods to live in. I can quote a dozen statistics off the top of my head and even refer people to several academic articles on the subject.  I have calculated my carbon footprint a handful of times.  I try to recycle where I can.  What more can be asked of me?

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This encounter with a garbage truck answered that question by leading me to another question: when I dump something in the trash, how often do I truly think about where it goes to and how often do I think about the people that will have to live with that trash so I don’t have to?

Do I think about the workers and neighbors who are at higher risk of disease due to the gasses emitted from the decomposing trash?  Do I think about those who live near landfills who become poorer as their property value decreases while the landfill increases due to increased odor, smoke, and bugs?  Neighbors already oppressed by other systemic issues that typically impact the poor such as racism, mass incarceration, immigration

Do I think of how the greenhouse gases emitted from the landfill that my trash will decompose in will hurt the poor across the world who already suffer from lack of shelter and drinking water

I had to live with my trash for an extra 25 minutes that evening as I followed that garbage truck through my neighborhood.  Others will have to live with it for years.  

In that moment I believe God invited me to turn down that road so the issue could move from my mind to my heart, a move that is only possible when we have an “encounter” with the reality of the damage we are causing.  Not surprisingly, the entry point to my heart was my own Augustinian Spirituality.  

While the Environment was not a concern that Augustine addressed directly 1,600 years ago, he would see the goods of the Earth as belonging to every person.  This principle of the common good is the basis for his synthesis of the Gospel found in the Rule:

Call nothing your own, but let everything be yours in common.

Saint Augustine (The Rule I, 4)

The Earth and all its goodness belong to all because it is a gift from the creator of all.  The goods of the Earth, including the land that is used to hold the trash I throw away, are therefore not for my consumption alone.  They are meant to be shared.  Yet, the more we throw away, the more land we have to take from other people’s backyards.

“God made both the rich and the poor. So the rich and the poor are born alike. You meet one another as you walk on the way together. Do not oppress or defraud anyone. One may be needy and another may have plenty. But the Lord is the marker of them both. Through the person who has, He helps the one who needs; and through the person who does not have, He tests the one who has.”

Saint Augustine (Sermon 35, 7)

As someone “who has,” perhaps this encounter was a test to see how I would respond. Aware of my own need for God and the needs of those who are impacted by what I choose to throw away, how will I respond to those who are begging me to send less trash to their backyard?  Will I go back to just reading about the issue, or will I seek to make a change?  

Hearing the “cry of the poor” is one of the seven goals of Laudato Si’.

“… generally speaking, there is little in the way of clear awareness of problems which especially affect the excluded. Yet they are the majority of the planet’s population, billions of people. These days, they are mentioned in international political and economic discussions, but one often has the impression that their problems are brought up as an afterthought, a question which gets added almost out of duty or in a tangential way, if not treated merely as collateral damage. 

Pope Francis (Laudato Si, no. 49)

I believe Augustine would say I was invited to get stuck behind that garbage truck that evening so I could enter into a moment of solidarity with those who would be impacted by “my trash” and hear their cry to send less trash their way.  I was invited into an encounter that goes beyond the statistics and facts and a simple field trip to a landfill. I was invited to move them from a mere afterthought to a primary consideration the next time I dump something into the trash can. 

Through this encounter, I would be given the gift of compassion:  

“Blessed are those who feel compassion, because God will have compassion on them. In fact, you are hungry and thirsty for justice. If you are hungry and thirsty, you are a beggar for God. So, you stand like a beggar in front of God’s door, but there is also another beggar in front of your door. What will you do with your beggar, God will do with his.”

Saint Augustine (Discourse 53 / A,10)

A change motivated not just through a logical decision of the mind, but a change motivated through the seed of compassion planted in my heart as I sat behind that garbage truck.  Compassion that can only grow as I encounter the people who are unjustly impacted by my trash.

Yet, there is another challenge. If only one person in a community strives to live a truly sustainable lifestyle, they will have little impact. This is true whether it is an Augustinian community, a family, a group of roommates, a community of coworkers, a community of friends, or any number of groups of people.  This is where I believe Augustinian Spirituality has something more to offer.

The heart of Augustinian life is to live with one mind AND heart (The Rule I, 3) on the journey towards God.  Great power is harnessed and our collective journey to God is enhanced when we as individuals are moved to unite around a common destination. Such a movement can begin when each member of a community dares to allow their hearts to be moved through encounters with, as Augustine says above, the “beggars” at our door.  As the seeds of compassion are planted in our individual hearts through such encounters, we are called to unite our hearts and our collective minds (full of ideas) towards creative and innovative changes together

RELATED: A Shared Journey

If every member of a community committed to taking just a few moments to “hear the cry of the poor” through an “encounter” with the human beings who are unjustly oppressed by the impact we are having on the environment, then we may all the more be moved to unite towards action.  Once we are moved to action, we can unite in mind AND heart (The Rule I, 3) as a community that works towards real change that truly shows compassion for the fellow beggars knocking at our door; beggars asking us to send less “trash” their way. 

If only one member of a community strives to live a sustainable lifestyle, they can therefore still have a big impact. They can invite others to encounter the poor and oppressed as they have; so that others will have hearts that move towards the gift of compassion so critical for the journey to God.

“What you procure for yourself you must also obtain for your neighbor, so that he may also love God with a perfect love. You do not love your neighbor as yourself unless you try to lead him to the same good towards which you are striving. It is a question of a good which does not grow smaller because everybody is searching for it with you.”

Saint Augustine (On the Customs of the Catholic Church, 49)
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