Clergy do lots of things — preach, visit, counsel, lead services.
But when the pandemic struck, Rod Giesbrecht, pastor of Tabor Baptist Church in Transcona, found he couldn’t do most of those things. So he decided to pick up litter.
Giesbrecht, 57, started picking up litter last March.
"The gym I went to was closed, so I decided to get exercise by walking," said Giesbrecht, who is also a trustee for the River East Transcona School Division.
While walking, he saw all the litter exposed by the melting snow. It irritated and annoyed him, so he decided to clean it up.
Until the end of last year, Giesbrecht estimates he picked up over 11,500 kilograms of litter.
Along with the usual things like fast food cups and packaging, beer and pop cans and other detritus, he has also picked up abandoned box springs, mattresses, tires, couches, cribs, car batteries and car doors.
When he finds a bigger item, he gets someone to help him load it into his truck. Sometimes that’s a member of his church.
"If someone wants to talk, I invite them along," he said of how they work together while observing physical distancing. "It’s nice to have a second pair of hands to help."
Giesbrecht figures he walks two to four kilometres each day, putting in 20 or more hours a week picking up and disposing of litter and recyclables.
"I don’t do it when it’s 30 above or 30 below," he said. Otherwise, he’s out every day.
What’s really disappointing these days is finding so many discarded masks and gloves. "There wasn’t much before September," he said. "Now it’s very common."
While seeing so much litter annoys him, he tries not to judge those who throw their garbage on the ground.
"It doesn’t help," he said. "Anyway. I can only control my own actions."
What does his church think of their pastor picking up litter?
"They see it as an extension of who they are, serving the community," he said, adding the church sees serving others as a ministry. In December, they made 100 full turkey meals for people in need of food. In January, they made gift bags.
Giesbrecht also sees it as part of who he is as a person of faith.
"This is God’s world, the world God created," he said. "Littering is not showing respect or care for that world. For me picking up litter is a way to serve God, serve others and the whole community."
It also gives him lots of time to think and pray while he walks.
"I think about and pray about the world we live in, for the people who throw things away," he said.
Giesbrecht isn’t the only one connecting faith and litter cleanup.
In 2017 a group of imams in a west London, England became increasingly frustrated at the high levels of littering in the area and issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, against it.
Said imam Qari Amin Chisty: "Islam places a huge emphasis on the environment and cleanliness, it is an important part of how to live as a good Muslim . . . Offering prayers in the mosque and then going outside and dumping rubbish is haram (forbidden)."
Also in England, in 2019 Graham Usher, the Bishop of Dudley, encouraged congregations in that west-central part of the country to organize litter pilgrimages — walking and praying while collecting any litter they might find.
"Litter pilgrimages are a perfect example of how church communities can make a difference locally to combat the problem of waste and litter in our society," he said, adding "As followers of Jesus, who saw the beauty of creation all around him, we are called to safeguard the integrity of creation and to sustain the life of the earth."
In Pennsylvania, Buddhist Lina Blanchet discovered the sacred nature of life while picking up litter.
"Picking up litter is akin to our dharmic path," she wrote, adding that picking it up was a way to notice and observe "our own negative mind states, observing them, and allowing them to pass."
While picking up litter, she imagined each piece of garbage as the anger, jealousy, or indifference she experienced.
"Recognizing the pain caused by these mind states, a tenderness of heart develops, and I remind myself that a willingness to sit with this pain is where the path of compassion begins. I see the trash, hold on to it, consider it, and let it go, making way for a greater spaciousness."
With so many people out walking these days due to the pandemic, there is more opportunity for more littering. But there is also more chances to follow Giesbrecht’s example by picking it up. And with spring just a couple months away, maybe some local congregations can plan their own litter pilgrimages. (Physically distanced, of course.)
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.