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.

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