Building Bridges

Jesus grew up in Nazareth, a very small village that was literally built into a hill. People took advantage of the limestone caves that dotted the landscape by setting up their living spaces within and extending tents out onto the hillside, where their animals were kept. Joseph, Jesus’ father, earned his livelihood by making the three-mile journey to Sepphoris, the regional Roman capital that was under construction one hill away. When he was old enough, Jesus no doubt accompanied his father on this daily commute, for the purpose of learning the carpentry trade.

It was a literally a journey from one world to the other — from Nazareth, poor and under economic and political oppression; to Sepphoris, which was designed to display opulence and power. It was a journey that opened Jesus’ eyes to the inequity of the world, and fueled his commitment to do something about it.

Jesus spent much of his ministry attempting to build a bridge over the chasm between the two worlds, and calling the denizens of Sepphoris to account for their hubris and isolation. The chasm between Nazareth and Sepphoris still exists – be it between the South Bronx and Larchmont or Scarsdale (which Jonathan Kozol makes frequent reference to in Ordinary Resurrections); or between any community where the cost of living keeps out those who don’t have the financial resources to buy in. And the same calling to account is still being issued.

When there is no bridge between the two worlds — or when the bridge that exists is too wobbly for people to want to cross over, we mentally manufacture bridges out of our projections. We make all sorts of assumptions about life on the other side, and since there is very little serious and honest traffic back and forth, these assumptions often stick. And they are inaccurate, and usually evolve into overt or hidden prejudices. And a certain blindness emerges, along with spiritual isolation.

We are challenged to follow Jesus’ lead and challenge by doing whatever we can (which is more than we want to assume) to build solid bridges between those whose lives are blessed by privilege and those for whom privilege is a wild pipe dream.

When I began my ministry as bishop of the Diocese of Newark, NJ in early 2007, I noticed the soup line that gathered outside the Roman Catholic Church located immediately next door to our four-story building in downtown Newark. We shared a driveway and a gate, which the diocese technically owned and kept locked, requiring those seeking a meal to walk around the block to get to the soup line. Good fences make good neighbors, as the poet Robert Frost wrote. And we were good neighbors, in the sense that we had no relationship with one another. We didn’t pay attention to them, and they didn’t bother us. The locked gate made sure of that. I did notice that there were a lot of men who arrived twice a day and ate outside — always outside. And I learned that the church was not used except for a weekly service for the deaf and a downtown mass opportunity on Ash Wednesday.

And then, after a few weeks, I no longer noticed the men, the church, or the gate. It all became an urban foreground for the Passaic River, which flowed just beyond and which captured the eye’s attention (if one was looking at all). They were poor, and therefore they were faceless, nameless – and story-less. They were a local cohort of “the poor,” which didn’t exactly mean that they were untouchable as a caste and therefore consigned to societal rejection, but it was culturally permissible to avoid them. And so I did.

I told myself that I needed to because as I became more acclimated to my new role, my gaze and attention was directed at the one hundred plus congregations in the diocese — to their clergy and laypeople, their problems, and their opportunities. Lots of things were happening. There was a lot to see, and an enormous amount to learn. I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see anything else. When I arrived at the office in the morning, our parking lot, located against the fence and near the gate, was for me no more than a parking lot. There were people eating breakfast on the other side — but I literally didn’t see them.

After being challenged by a priest in the diocese, who said in effect that the diocese had created a modern monument of Sepphoris in the center of Newark, we began to build a bridge between the diocesan office and the soup kitchen next door. We opened the gate and in so doing we built a bridge. We began to meet with the men who came to eat. It wasn’t easy. Some of us, myself included, had to confront deep-seated prejudices and fear. And over time, with a lot of fits and starts, we were able to see one another as neighbors. It was a start.

The Dread of the Assassination Attempt

Like many of us, the attempted assassination of Donald Trump sent my mind racing.  Who was the shooter?  Why did he do it?  Was security inadequate?  Would former President Trump be OK?  What does this mean for the election?  For Republicans?  For Democrats?  For the...

Praying for Biden and Trump

For a good stretch of my early years, prayer was a confounding exercise.  My family regularly went to church – where the congregation prayed while I dealt with itching legs from my flannel pants.  We said grace before dinner, which invariably became a contest over...

A Debate of Egos; the Need for the Soul

Last week I attended a debate watch party.  It was held in the Carthage College chapel in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on the first night of the Braver Angels Convention, an annual event that brings equal numbers of red (conservative) and blue (progressive) and yellow...

The Ten Commandments: Laws or Guidelines

Last week the governor of Louisiana signed a law mandating that the Ten Commandments be displayed in public school classrooms.  In some ways I get it, in spite of the fact that like so many it challenges the constitutional separation of church and state.  The Ten...

Mistrust and Trust

It was the spring of 1970.  The United States had just announced that it was expanding the war in Vietnam by authorizing bombing campaigns in Cambodia.  Campuses across the country erupted in protest.  On May 4, four protesting students at Kent State were shot and...

Challenges to Trusting the Process

Trust the process. This was a phrase I often heard when a strategy session or a problem-solving meeting bogged down.   The group would get stuck, and in frustration someone would either suggest we scrap the whole enterprise, or would start accusing a participant of...

Ep 13 – “A Common Humanity” with Wilk Wilkinson

Wilk Wilkinson joins me to discuss his journey from political apathy to toxic political engagement, followed by the epiphany that since led him on a mission of bettering the world, one attitude at a time, by charting a course toward understanding, bridging divides, and fostering a community where wisdom prevails over discord.

Time and Space Needed for Grief and Mourning

“In war, death interrupts nothing.  Time doesn’t stop; it seems to accelerate.”  So wrote David French, in a New York Times column on May 25, 2024.  A veteran of the Iraq War, French goes on to say that in battle there is no time or space for mourning the loss of a...

Whose Land is It?

A couple of weeks ago, I came across this passage from my daily reading:     “From the wilderness and the Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates,all the land of the Hittites, to the Great Sea in the west shall be your territory.   No one will be able...

Ep 12 – “The Church Cracked Open” with The Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers

Canon Spellers shares her journey from being a skeptic and critic of the Church to becoming a senior leader with a deep faith and a commitment to social justice. We explore the themes of mission, evangelism, the power of genuine curiosity in bridging divides, and ongoing efforts to address systemic issues like white supremacy within the church.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join my mailing list to receive the latest blog updates.

You have Successfully Subscribed!