One Spring Break, while I was in my second year of seminary, I decided to take a drive up the California coast. A few hours into the trip I saw a line of cars parked by the side of the highway in the town of Fort Bragg. Curious as to what was attracting the crowd, I parked too and followed the people down a long path to the beach. At first it seemed like an ordinary beach, but as I looked closer I realized that something was wrong. There was no sand. There were no pebbles, shells or dirt to be seen. This beach was made of glass, metal, porcelain and chunks of garbage ground up against the big rocks sticking up out of the surf. The sight of it was shocking and disturbing, almost post-apocalyptic.
By talking to some locals, I learned that “Glass Beach” was the result of many decades of garbage dumping when Fort Bragg had no other dump. A hundred years ago, people started to throw all their garbage over the cliffs, a problem which became worse as consumers started to buy food in disposable packaging, soda in bottles and all kinds of plastic things. Eventually, they started buying cars, and when those wore out, they too were dumped into the ocean at Fort Bragg. Sometimes the trash heaps became so big and unsightly they would light it all on fire, and all this junk would melt down into the bedrock.
I often remember Glass Beach during the season of Lent, the season when Christians are invited to consider our place in the world, and make amends for the mistakes we have made in our lives. The destruction human beings caused at Glass Beach was so complete and irreversible, that by the time they stopped using the beach as a dump in 1967, the mess was too extensive for them to fix. Isn’t that a feeling that many of us can relate to? Whether in our personal conflicts, wars between nations or damage to the environment, it’s a terrible feeling to realize too late that we need to make a change. As a Christian, I am compelled to look honestly at the harm I have done, and understand how my actions — or inactions — affect others.
Yet, I must not get stuck there, because the Christian faith is also about the hope of Easter. The lesson of Glass Beach did not end in 1967. On my visit, my feelings of shame and despair were soon replaced with awe and wonder, as I looked closely and saw how beautiful the beach was becoming, covered with smooth beach glass and smashed up china dishes. I noticed how meditative the beachcombers seemed as they searched for treasures and what a profound lesson visitors learned there. I realized that the solemn day when the residents of Fort Bragg stopped adding to the damage was the same day when creation began the slow work of healing itself. We can never absolve ourselves of our responsibility to make things right. But we also should not underestimate God’s power to create something new out of the broken pieces.