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The Honey Springs congregation confronts its ant problem

Conflict resolution in a congregation not unlike yours.
By Meg Barnhouse

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(Vladimir Davydov/istockphoto)

One Sunday morning after the service at Honey Springs Unitarian Universalist Congregation—a mythical UU congregation where we are all the way we are, only more so—a small knot of people was sending out waves of emotional turbulence in the hallway. One dad held his three-year-old daughter in his arms as her mom patted her back, calming her shuddering breaths. Another mom held her seven-year-old by the hand. He wanted to go, and he didn’t want to be seen holding his mother’s hand, so every now and then he would try to tug free.

“Well, we can’t have the kids covered in ants when they’re on the playground, Craig,” said Gail, the Honey Springs director of Lifespan Religious Education.

Stooping over so he could hear her well, Craig, the tall, retired pilot who headed up the Building and Grounds Committee, nodded energetically. The mother and father nodded, too.

“Aren’t they just around the edges of the playground, though?” Craig asked. “Just in the ivy that covers the fence? We don’t want to spray poison on the playground and get the kids get covered in neurotoxins, now, do we?” No one wanted that. You could tell there wasn’t one person in the hall that was in favor of covering the kids in neurotoxins.

“You are going to have to Do Something,” Gail said. You could hear the capital letters as she spoke. She didn’t quite stamp her foot, but almost. “You could just spray along the fence line and I’ll keep the kids away from the ivy. How’s that?”

“I don’t know, Gail. I think you’re attacking a gnat with a howitzer here.”

The boy’s mom spoke up. “They were here first, guys. We built on top of them, and they have a right to be here just as much as we do. The kids can get used to just brushing them off. Coexisting with nature is a really good lesson for them. They don’t have to annihilate everything that makes them uncomfortable.”

Gail opened her mouth to reply, then shut it again. The Rev. Cotton Lovingood, the new minister, was standing in the door to his office, watching their exchange. Gail didn’t know what his position on ant-killing would be. Perhaps he was one of those who shooed spiders out of his house, blew mosquitoes off of his arm with a gentle breath of air, trapped mice and drove them to the nearest state park to let them go scampering into the underbrush to take their chances in the wild. He was married, but Gail didn’t know his wife Laura that well, and they had no kids so far. For all she knew Cotton and Laura didn’t mind at all being covered in ants. She pictured them on a hiking trail, eating sandwiches, packing out the bio-degradable brown paper in which the sandwiches had been wrapped, laughing gently as they brushed tiny congregations of picnic ants off one another’s arms and legs.

Mostly Craig liked to handle everything by himself. He detested meetings, and he didn’t like calling around asking people to help. Sometimes they said “no,” and sometimes they said “yes” but didn’t show up, and it was just disheartening. Plus, they wanted to talk everything to death, and he would just rather get it done. Sometimes, when he didn’t want to be part of what was happening around him, Craig’s mind would go back up into the sky, 30,000 feet above the noise and tussle of ground level, and he would barely see the people clamoring for attention, for a solution. Gail was a fine person, she was just easily stirred up, Craig thought, and she seemed to feel that all she had to say was, “It’s for the children,” and everyone should drop whatever they were doing and fix what she wanted fixed.

Craig was a fine person, Gail thought, but he was hard to pin down. That man could think for three months about something and apparently not notice the passage of time. These ants were a persistent problem, and every spring they made trouble. Two years ago they got into the motion sensors in the Parish House alarm system, and the police kept getting called in the middle of the night. Little boogers. The ants, not the police. Two years ago the peace lily in the minister’s office sprouted a tiny line of ants traveling from its terra cotta pot, up the wall, and out into the back garden. When the minister picked up the pot to see where they were coming from, thousands of ants erupted from the pot where they had overwintered, covering her hands and arms. To her credit, she didn’t drop the pot until she got out the front door, and then ants, dirt, and terra cotta went everywhere. Gail wasn’t too sure that wasn’t why that minister had left for another congregation.

In staff meeting that Tuesday, Cotton, Gail, and Shameeka, the administrator, were talking about the ant problem. Shameeka had been at the church for many years, through three ministers. Cotton had been caught up on the ant history, the motion detectors, the police, and the mouse in the kitchen. One minister had been so tenderhearted that he had insisted that the mouse in the kitchen remain unmolested. He even learned to enjoy its bright little eyes as it watched him make tea in the afternoon. That minister had waxed eloquent, Shameeka reported, about non-harming as a tenet of spiritual practice and said he was working on a sermon about his conversations with the mouse about Jesus and the Buddha. She had simply kept her office door closed during the mouse’s tenure.

One autumn afternoon a stout black snake had come into the building, lured by the mouse’s scent. Preparations for a reception were underway that afternoon as a memorial service was taking place; the Women’s Alliance was in charge of the refreshment table. Buckie McClaren had opened a low cabinet door to find a few platters and came across the fat snake resting after enjoying the mouse for its dinner. Fortunately the bagpiper chose that exact moment to expel a loud burst of sound from the pipes in preparation for his moving rendition of “Amazing Grace,” so no one in the service heard Buckie cuss. She had been in the Army and had quite a salty tongue.

Cotton enquired about what had happened to the snake.

“Oh, Buckie took care of it. Grabbed that thing behind its head and marched it outside. Tossed it over the fence into the neighbor’s back yard. They moved away a couple of years later. It had nothing to do with the snake,” Shameeka said. The three of them nodded silently, the way you do when you have no idea what to say next.

“What should we do about the ants?” Gail asked Cotton.

“What are our options?” he asked them both.

“I wouldn’t want my grandbabies covered in ants, but neither would I want them covered in poison,” Shameeka said, shaking her head.

“I say we just treat the playground on a Monday so the ants have time to die and the poison dissipates before the kids get back onto the playground the next Sunday. Craig does not have to know.”

“We could just poke the ant bait into holes in the ground real close to the fence rather than scatter it on the playground,” Shameeka thought out loud.

“You probably think we should just let them be, don’t you?” Gail asked Cotton wearily.

“You don’t think maybe they’re just living there under the fence, praying for world peace?” Cotton asked.

“But they sting,” Gail said.

“Bite, I think it is, “ Shameeka said, “but still . . .”

“Hard to believe they have an interest in world peace if they’re biting the kids,” Cotton said.

“Bertie said they were here first and that the kids needed to learn to coexist with the ants, who have as much right to be here as they do,” Gail said glumly.

“Hmm,” Cotton said. “We’ve already crossed the line on that one by not just sitting in the dirt and the rain to have our services. That ship has sailed.” He paused for a moment, thinking. “Who did you say the neighbor was now, Shameeka?”

She didn’t know the name, but she would go with him to visit if he wanted to go.

“Maybe the neighbors have an interest in treating their fence line for ants!” Gail chimed in, getting the gist quickly.

The next morning Cotton, Gail, and Shameeka climbed the stairs of the neighbors’ wooden porch carrying a pink and yellow bag of ant poison. As it turned out, the new neighbor was more than willing for them to pick their way through the brush in the back of his property and scatter the ant poison on his side of the fence where the kids wouldn’t be near it, but the ants would have ready access. He was Baptist himself and politely declined an invitation to attend a Sunday service with them. What he said was, “That sounds nice, I’ll try to get over there sometime,” but everyone knew that in the country around Honey Springs, “I’ll try” usually means “no,” so they all left knowing what would happen with that.

Gail and Cotton went picking through the brush in the neighbor’s yard to spread the bait. Shameeka said yes to a glass of iced tea and kept the neighbor company talking about grandkids while the operation was in progress. They could see Gail and Cotton out the window. It looked as though they were dancing, in a way, stamping their feet and hitting themselves. It was probably good that they couldn’t hear them.

Craig chose that moment to show up to water the impatiens beds. He nodded to Cotton and Gail across the fence, kept the hose moving, and pretended he didn’t know what they were doing.

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