Sweeping streets and spreading Christ’s love

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Thursday, September 12th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. In one area of Washington, D.C., people use certain street corners as undesignated dump sites. The litter and trash is so bad, even the garbage company refuses to pick it up.

EICHER: WORLD reporter Jenny Rough talked with a man who lives in that neighborhood. He decided he wasn’t going to just walk on by. So he gets up every morning and sweeps the streets clean. 

When he tallied all his efforts last year, he discovered he’d cleaned up nearly three tons of trash.

JENNY ROUGH, REPORTER: Brian Bakke steps outside his row house in the Truxton Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C. In one hand he holds a broom with a black handle and a red brush. In the other, a 45-gallon double strength garbage bag. He’s wearing blue gloves. His mission: to clean up the trash that litters the streets. 

BAKKE: This is dog waste. Here’s Checkers and McDonald’s. More food. More food. A lot of it is food waste. 

Bakke’s block is a former kill zone. An area known for violence when crack cocaine hit the streets here in the 1980s. Bakke now finds teeny tiny zip-lock bags the size of his thumbnail—used to hold heroin. Today, he picks up an empty bottle of Long Island Iced Tea—a mix of vodka, tequila, rum, triple sec, and gin.

BAKKE: Yesterday there were bottles everywhere. Not many here today, which is great.

Bakke grew up in the inner city of Chicago where his dad was a pastor. 

BAKKE: My mother and father decided to live poor. So that had a huge impact on my faith. They decided since we’re ministering among the poor, we’re going to live at that level economically. 

His parents modeled love and grace for all. He grew up understanding that we’re made in the image of God.

While rival gang members ran at each other with weapons, Bakke learned to be a peacemaker. 

He keeps that same peaceful countenance in D.C. Monday through Friday, he sweeps five blocks. On the weekends, 10 to 12. Rain, snow, D.C. humidity—nothing stops him. At 54, he’s been sweeping for 18 years. It takes him about 45 minutes. Then he heads off to his job at a nonprofit foundation. 

He prays for his neighbors as he sweeps: that God would give them peace, safety, truth, love, justice, and most of all, joy.

At one corner, Bakke tips over a gray trash bin, overflowing with smelly garbage. 

BAKKE: This has been here for a couple of weeks. You see all these things.

It’s stuffed with liquor bottles, greasy plates, and slime

AUDIO: [Bakke dumps bin]

ROUGH: Eww. 

BAKKE: It’s like a biology experiment…the stench is incredible.

A street machine comes through once a week to clean the gutters. But neither the city sanitation service nor the area’s private garbage company will deal with this mess at an undesignated dump site. 

BAKKE: These things will get so heavy because they’ve got all these heavy bottles and so the garbage guys will come and try to lift it. And then the garbage company says, “Nope, it’s too heavy, we’re not going to do anything about it because, it’ll break our equipment.” So they just leave it here.

Bakke sweeps the trash into his garbage bags. He sets them—now in manageable loads—around the corner on New Jersey Avenue. The garbage company will pick up that trash. 

BAKKE: It becomes a health issue. Like, if you leave all the trash out here, it’s going to draw rats and that’s going to lead to some really horrible health problems. So I thank God for white blood cells. And I do wear my gloves now, so I’m OK with that. 

Health isn’t the only concern. Safety is another. Twelve years ago, a woman was stabbed to death at a nearby bus stop. 

AUDIO: [Sound of sirens]

After that, Bakke decided he would pick up anything that could possibly be used as a weapon—spears, steel shanks, serrated knives, a hatchet. 

BAKKE: Last year, I found 17 weapons. The year before 22… 

So far this year? Eleven. He found his first weapon by accident.

BAKKE: There’s a bunch of leaves on the sidewalk, but…so I decide, OK, after walking by that a couple days, I’ll sweep it and underneath was a gigantic butcher knife. 

Over the years, he’s learned where to look.

BAKKE: If you turn around, you see black wrought iron fence behind you of the row house. I’ve pulled out more than 25 knives out of the front yards. It’s a kitchen knife, so it’s 6 to 8 inches long, black handle, stuck down blade first, so it’s right there ready for action if you need it. 

Not all of his friends understand why Bakke does what he does. They worry he’ll be attacked, but he never has been. 

Bakke is 6 feet 6 inches tall with pale white skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes. He’s not exactly inconspicuous. 

BAKKE: When I first moved to the neighborhood, I asked God, “All right, Lord, how does a white man that looks like me enter an all-black neighborhood?” And the Lord said, “Buy a broom and use it.” “Use it in silence.” Meaning, don’t say a thing until someone else talks to you.

Drug dealers were convinced he was an FBI agent. Others asked if he was performing community service, especially the days he wore an orange t-shirt. One morning, a woman stuck her head out the window and shouted questions at him: “What are you doing? Why are you cleaning?” He told her he was trying to be a neighbor. Stunned, she thanked him—and shut the window. 

Bakke and Myra are friends now. She brought the village to him.

BAKKE: By the end of that week, every single person on my block was waving, smiling, calling me by name. 

His actions have influenced others. Take one neighbor who is a chain-smoker. He used to casually flick his cigarette butts on the ground. Pet owners couldn’t walk their dogs along that stretch of polluted sidewalk because the dogs liked to eat the butts and would get sick. 

BAKKE: So I went to this guy, and I said, “What if I put a little jar out here or this beautiful little ceramic vase, would you just drop your butts in there?” He said, “Absolutely.”

During the crack wars, the city cut most of the trees down so the helicopters flying overhead could see better. Bakke and his wife decided to purchase new trees to plant. Soon, other residents chipped in to cover the costs and help plant them.

The block is now considered a safe zone.

Bakke says being “The Street Sweeper” is his calling. 

BAKKE: Not everyone has this calling. So maybe it’s not a broom for you. Like think about all the different people in your world that are completely, solely, original to you. Who in it has God just broken your heart for?

Whatever else others do, come tomorrow, Bakke will be on the streets. A quiet, peaceful neighbor. The only sound, the sweeping of his broom. 

AUDIO: [Sound of sweeping broom]

For WORLD Radio, I’m Jenny Rough reporting from Washington, D.C. 

(Photo/Brian Bakke)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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2 comments on Sweeping streets and spreading Christ’s love

  1. What an impact this work must have on the neighborhood and the people. I would like to learn more about way neighbors feel. What is their response to Brian’s love for his neighborhood? If Rough interviewed neighbors, what did they say?

  2. A beautiful and powerful piece, reminding us we all can make a difference in our little corner of the world.

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