The 100 North Main building is an instance of something I’ve wondered at since my house building days. One would think that humans wear out the things we build. And, of course, we do. Boot soles and palms rub stair treads and handrails slowly to dust one touch at a time.
But when a building is no longer occupied—whether a track home in rural Tennessee or a 38 story tower outside the red doors of an old Memphis church—it seems like the materials it’s made of know they’re no longer under surveillance. Paint suddenly feels freer to peel and fascia boards are released from rafter tails like soldiers told to stand at ease. Buildings seem to wither more quickly when human attention is withdrawn.
I know I’m assigning intelligence and maybe even a little mischievousness to material things, and decay is not so difficult to account for. It’s still a little startling to watch.
100 North Main opened in 1965, just two years before I was born, and it seems like this vast edifice of concrete and steel would have been difficult to reduce to its present condition if, as soon as the mayor cut the ribbon, hundreds of us had set about chipping away at it with anything less than machinery made for demolition. But the building was actually tended to for most of its life. Now it seems to have lost a quarter of its windows and enough of its concrete shell to make a gravel bar in the Mississippi. This is a great mystery to me.
It probably doesn’t register as such to someone like Helario Reyna, who attends to Calvary’s buildings in large ways and small, day after day, constantly restoring some of what’s coming loose or wearing away. He’s directly involved in the small acts of attention and repair that are the simple but sustaining miracles that keep the built world alive.
In Genesis 4, Cain asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” I sometimes think the rest of the Bible is a wild and elaborate “Yes” to that question in a thousand different contexts. Our brothers and sisters depend on our small acts of keeping, as we do on theirs. And the world we share will not flourish if we each tend first and only to ourselves.
I worry we’ve lost some of the sense that our small acts of tending to one another generously, creatively, and with kindness are utterly essential to keeping things whole. We’ve been taught for too long that there’s an invisible hand that will make things better for all if we each seek our own interest. I’m told that this interpretation does not do justice to the ideas of the Scotsman who invented the term. But whatever Adam Smith believed, the concept is embedded in the American imagination. And it is deeply counter to everything Jesus taught, and counter to the Torah and the Prophets as well.
A pandemic that claimed lives as people claimed a right not to wear a mask is one recent and poignant example of the deadliness of answering Cain’s question defiantly “No.” But I also believe the unraveling of a shared sense of truth is a symptom of the delusion that attending only to the needs of myself and my own will be better for everyone. If I’m generally guided by a self-centered world view, is it surprising that I’d go looking for versions of truth that serve me best?
We need to tell cautionary tales about how a society of people fending only for themselves will crumble. But, just as there are other buildings in Memphis besides 100 N. Main, such as a certain church that sits beside it, we also need to tell the stories, like those that fill our scriptures, about how our world hasn’t crumbled, damaged as it is. Stories that remind us how the small acts of selfless love and creative kindness to strangers have always been how God has sustained what is good and beautiful and true in God’s world.
We read in the news that Memphis is trying to tend even to dear old 100 N. Main, even if tending means tearing down what’s been neglected for too long and beginning anew. I wonder what we as Calvary will be called upon to do and say and bear witness to as our neighborhood changes. I wonder what acts of kindness and care our neighbors will depend on. To the old, old question, “Am I my brother’s and sister’s keeper?” I wonder what a new “Yes” will look like in our lives in the days to come?