Maybe it’s because I’m not on Pinterest, but I never knew there were so many uses for wooden pallets. Once a single-use, routinely discarded, strictly utilitarian object, the pallet is now sought-after material for furniture, signage, art and design.
It’s one of the best examples of the contemporary “repurposing” craze, wherein an object is adapted for different use than originally intended. It’s hardly a new phenomenon. My grandfather’s shed full of hardware organized in mayonnaise jars was evidence aplenty that, whether from frugality or inspiration, repurposing is nothing new. Still, repurposing as a cultural trend seems to have taken on new momentum in recent years, as evidenced in art, furniture design, clothing, construction, and home renovation.
There’s any number of motivations: the one-of-a-kind look, the satisfaction of the salvage, the creative conversation pieces that result from the crafting. Some might be attempting to reclaim the mythic qualities of the trades and materials of generations before. Others are displaying environmental consciousness by reusing resources. Still others might be reacting to the post-industrial age, or challenging power dynamics by defining an object for themselves.
Anthropologist Raymond Malewitz has written a book about creative repurposing in America and those he calls “rugged consumers” who, in his words, “misuse, reuse, and repurpose the objects within their social environments.” His book The Practice of Misuse begins with a rationale for repurposing, saying, “Any conscientious recycler or tinkerer knows that an object’s lost functionality need not mean that that object has ceased to function; it can gain a new ‘durability’ by simply changing functions.”
That sounds like church to me. And I’m not just referencing the recent run on rustic pallet walls and coffeebars (If I see one more new church with a sign made out of pallets, I swear!). Deep questions about the functionality and “durability” of the institutional church abound. One church might respond by turning an unused Sunday school room into a clothing closet, after-school center, or counseling office different than the room’s original intent. Others might discover in the valued forms of their worship service room for fresh expression. Some are finding ways to imagine how their summer children’s programming could become the material for new ministry to their community. In one dramatic example, one congregation expanded their Sunday sanctuary to double as a midweek soup kitchen. Repurposing has been embraced as a practice by many congregations I know and admire, including some with whom I’ve worked.
On one of my last days as pastor of Metro Baptist Church, I worked with a team that was building a deck in the middle of the church’s rooftop garden. True confession: we were using pallet wood. But we also used some planks that had been reclaimed from the set of a play held in the church’s sanctuary the previous month. And I thought to myself, “I’m in a garden, on a church’s roof, building a deck, made of wood, taken from the set of a play, produced in the sanctuary, four floors below.” And I knew I’d be chasing that for the rest of my life in ministry.
Because our viability — no, our faithfulness — might depend on our capacity for creative repurposing. Such a practice values all that has endured as a vital inheritance, while welcoming imagination and creativity in the formation of something with expanded function.
It happened recently at my church, First Baptist in Greensboro, as people imagined how a strip of land between two parking lots could be adapted for something different than its original intent. Originally the site of a neighborhood home, years ago the lot had been cleared and the church had purchased the continuous property, likely with designs on more parking. As of last month, it’s home to a new garden, as we join with many others who have embraced the sustainability, community, and health that can grow through such an effort. Seedlings planted last month were grown by friends at nearby Peacehaven Farm, our partners in a new Pastoral Residency next year. Through the community relationships growing through the project, that strip has also now become the site a new midweek neighborhood farmer’s market. “Oh, we can set up under that tree,” the market organizers said, pointing to the relatively nondescript tree that I had not really noticed before. It’s the same tree that has for many years been the front porch view of one of our cross-street neighbors – an artist, who came over in his dungarees with a shovel in hand on a recent workday and worked alongside ministers, deacons, volunteers, youth, and even a 5-yr-old. “I don’t come over here enough,” our artist neighbor said, standing in the garden that was once intended to be a parking lot.
It’s nothing new, of course. Jesus worked this way. His parables took the ordinary and earthy as the material with which to envision something new. “In imagining the kingdom,” my former professor Dan Goodman used to say, “Jesus never asked people to leave their world.” In the parables, the kingdom is known while people bake bread, or travel familiar roads, or draw water from a well. You don’t have to go someplace else or build something new. In one such parable, God’s kingdom is known in something as mundane as a seed planted that grows to be a great tree where all birds of the air come to nest.
At First Baptist in Greensboro, in a previously unused lot, sits a previously nondescript tree. All kinds of people have begun to gather under it, whose names and stories we had not known before. It’s become a symbol of our garden, and also of the work of the kingdom in and around us. In fact, the tree will probably end up as a logo for the new project. We might ask our cross-street neighbor to sketch it. His sketch might even end up on a new community garden sign. And I admit, we will probably build that sign out of pallets.