Potholes can do a lot of damage to cars: flat tires, bent rims, steering misalignment, problems to suspension systems, shocks, struts, undercarriages—even engines. When dodging potholes in the daily commute, we must also dodge other cars that are dodging other potholes in the same vicinity. More than an annoyance, the holes in the road are a menace that can cause further detriment beyond the asphalt and impact our psyche. Each year as winter thaws, street crews fill them as they are able. Until then, our job is to drive carefully and avoid the holes.
Twenty-five years ago, when I lived in Kansas City’s urban core, neighborhood activists in my faith community succeeded in shutting down about 250 drug houses. How? It started with potholes. In the aftermath of a winter similar to this one, seemingly powerless people residing in the Blue Hills neighborhood around Saint Therese Little Flower were tired of contending with drug landlords, drug dealers, drug pushers, and drugged-out gangs on every block. Though residents suffered a poor self-image and carried a defeatist attitude, we worked with CCO (Church Community Organizers) to shift power from the powerful to the powerless. We knew we couldn’t tangle with overwhelming monsters of the drug culture so we organized around something we could accomplish: the huge potholes in front of our church. We did research about city workers doing street repairs, the number of trucks, crews, schedules, priority areas, civic resources and allocations. We held a rally with our district city council representatives and street repair workers; we filled the church hall and presented our case with facts and statistics about the imbalanced attention given to other parts of town in relation to our area that had been ignored. We were well-prepared and the plea was well-received. The morning after the rally, city workers filled the potholes. When formerly powerless people discovered what they could accomplish, they became more courageous.
Next we took on street lighting, neighborhood policing, trashed properties, slum landlords, etc., widening the circle of change-agents to include metro police, KCMO police chief, county prosecutor, federal prosecutors, and mayor. We gained momentum through bigger victories that prepared us for the big challenge to rid our neighborhood of drug havens. It took a lot of time, energy, effort, sweat, tears, and even some bloodshed. The end result was not perfect—drug dealers are like cockroaches that, when driven out of one place, pop up in others—but it did alleviate one neighborhood of a horrible menace and it helped common people feel good about their ability to effect change and make their immediate world a little better.
Repairing potholes, in that instance, was a first step to changing a culture. I don’t know how this applies to other monsters that exist in our society but I know it applies. After dodging issues that can damage us and impact our psyche in negative ways, we will eventually want to repair them so that we can experience a smoother ride in our daily ventures out in the world. When I enter a new parish assignment, the first thing I do is employ the same CCO techniques to assess community strengths and self-image; I learn about “monsters” that the people want to drive out and I pay attention to any feelings of powerlessness. We quickly identify pothole-issues by which we can achieve small victories. Usually, we are then able to rally around bigger issues and become agents of change who tackle significant challenges to diminish their power over us. There are numerous monster issues looming along our daily journey and, like the drug culture, they are tough to tackle.
Many people feel powerless to effect change (in family systems, church, government, or any bureaucracy) much as we can feel powerless maneuvering through the potholes of our daily journey while trying to protect the vessel that gets us from here to there. We don’t want to damage our vehicle any more than we want to increase the wear and tear on our very being. But until we can fill the potholes, we’ll have to drive more carefully. First we dodge them, then we get them repaired, then we travel a smoother path so that we can take on bigger issues—monster issues that diminish us or our society. And we keep traveling onward toward journey’s end and the ultimate victory of God’s kingdom where, I’m told, the streets are paved in gold.