Can we talk about leaf blowers? They are the salvation and bane of suburbia. If you live in a city with a postage stamp yard or in a rural area where leaves blow where they will, then you might think this column is not for you. But hold on. I want to tell you about Gody Sanchez and his vision from God.
A few years ago Los Angeles revealed her social fault lines in a political uproar about gasoline-powered leaf blowers. Wealthy glitterati in the West Hills didn’t like the raucous roar made by yard crews when they revved up their Toro tools. Environmentalists also targeted the lawn care equipment, indicating that the pollution from an hour’s worth of leaf blowing could equal 300 miles of driving a car. Under such combined pressure, L.A. outlawed leaf blowers within 500 feet of a residential area. Violations were punishable by fines up to $270 (an earlier draft sent violators directly to jail).
There was one significant problem. The city’s gardeners—who stood to lose as much as a quarter of their monthly revenues—were primarily low-income Latinos. With approximately 65,000 people in Los Angeles’ landscaping business, this was a serious issue. Before long, in the tradition of César Chávez, lawn workers united to form the Association of Latin American Gardeners. When the city didn’t respond to their pleas for help with the ordinance, a dozen opponents of the ban set up makeshift tents on the south lawn of City Hall to spotlight their situation. When that didn’t work, eight of the protesters began a hunger strike. "We have to show them the poor have hearts," said one striker. "We need the tools for our jobs."
On the nightly news Mission: Impossible star Peter Graves and "Catwoman" Julie Newmar—both anti-leaf blowers—were pitted against working-class people, many of them immigrants and refugees. Southern California environmentalists were forced to expose their class allegiances. The City of Angels was not looking very pretty.
WHAT, YOU MAY ASK, has this contemporary showdown got to do with God? Enter: Gody Sanchez.
Sanchez, a Salvadoran refugee and auto mechanic living in Van Nuys, saw the hunger strikers on TV. Like a modern-day Moses, Sanchez was moved to "save his brothers from starvation." Sanchez says that God spoke to him in a vision and showed him the way to make a machine that would ease the heavy labor of gardeners without creating noise and pollution.
The result? Sanchez invented the first battery-operated leaf blower. He transformed a gas-powered blower into an electric one by using an ordinary car battery and a radiator fan.
On the fifth day of the hunger strike, Gody Sanchez arrived on the steps of City Hall with his customized creation cobbled together from car parts. As the Los Angeles Times announced, "It’s a pollution-free, whisper-quiet leaf blower built from common car parts that may have enough power up its nozzle to sweep the blower ban debate right out of City Hall." The hunger strike ended within two days when gardeners received a written promise from the mayor that city officials would help find legal substitutes for the banned power tools.
Meanwhile, Gody Sanchez continued to receive directions from the Divine. "Sanchez adapted the silencer from an automatic weapon into the exhaust pipe of a filtered gasoline-powered leaf blower to produce a quieter, lighter, and more powerful machine," says artist Rubén Ortiz Torres in his article "Holy Power Tools, Batman!" He refitted swords into plowshares.
Within a month of Sanchez’ demonstration, the city organized a Leaf Blower Technology Task Force to promote clean leaf blower technology.
"Divine renewal can only come through those whose roots are in the world of prayer," wrote Christian mystic and pacifist Evelyn Underhill. It often comes from unlikely places.
Gody Sanchez is what I’d call an applied mystic. Not only did he turn his garage into his vision tent, but he also adapted God’s designs for an electric leaf blower without a million-dollar research program. In the process, he preserved jobs, negotiated peace, inspired hope, and did a small part to save the planet. Some call it genius, others necessity. I call it evidence of a living God.
Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.