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To South Street Bridge From West Philly Walls

“Your troubles will go away like water beneath a bridge.” – (Job 11:16)

As a kid growing up in West Philly I loved my bicycle. I rode everywhere on that thing – to friends’ houses, to family members’ homes across the city, even to church for choir rehearsal. My bike afforded me a degree of independence as a young boy. It helped me widen my territory beyond the colloquial confines of my own neighborhood and it pushed the boundaries of my possibilities. My bike was my boyhood passport to urban adventure. Some of those adventures took me into Center City Philadelphia. I figured out that the safest and most traffic moderate route by bicycle into the heart of the city required me to ride my bike over the South Street Bridge that crossed over I-76 and also over a section of the Schuylkill River. But when I ventured this far from my West Philly home it created a dilemma for me. Back in the days of my youth South Street Bridge was an old metal bridge. When you got to the middle of the bridge you were no longer on a paved road but on metal grating through which you could look down 1100 feet and see the murky and active Schuylkill River. I was terrified of that bridge! Sometimes I would ride towards it distracted, forgetting it’s perilous panorama underneath. I frequently paused for several moments before crossing, trying to summon the gumption to navigate The Metal Monster. I was often tempted to turn back and find another route. But to do so would rob me of the adventures that awaited me on the other side. The little boy argued with the young man inside me, but the latter would always get his way. I tried a few approaches to crossing the bridge. There were times when I would keep my eyes focused ahead of me rather than look down into the river while pedaling as fast as I could. There were also times when I pedaled and look down intermittently while screaming! But I’m happy to say – every time I crossed that bridge to the other side.

As I observe the fractured cultural landscape around me during these troubling times I can’t help but notice all of the walls between people. The President speaks of building a wall along the US southern border. I’ve watched much of the Supreme Court confirmation hearings and could not help but hear a lot of ‘wall language’ as senators argued their differences surrounding the symbolism, the substance and even the scheduling of said hearings. One cannot help but hear the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ spirit of mistrust that undergirds nearly all of the rhetoric that currently unfolds in both the executive and legislative branches of our government. We can now choose a cable channel that almost completely harmonizes with our individual views and sensibilities on politics, culture and entertainment. We are becoming a nation where we have forgotten how to listen to one another. There are very few substantive conversations wherein there is an open and civil exchange of ideas. Most of us live in social echo chambers of limited human discourse that rarely venture beyond our preferred tribal perspectives. Geography, race, class, and theological perspectives frequently polarize even our churches. Sundays may very well be the most ‘walled in’ and ‘walled out’ day of the week.

All this reminds me of the great American songwriter, Paul Simon, who penned these words:

" Like a bridge over troubled water I will lay me down "

It seems that many want to build walls but few want to construct bridges in our culture. What a tragedy! Paul Simon provided a socially conscious soundtrack for the impossibly troublesome 60’s of the 20th Century. He encouraged us not to focus on the troubled waters of an often-divided culture. His solution was to simply lay himself downover the troubled water. Brilliant! However, when we lay ourselves down as a bridge we are likely to be walked on by people from both sides. But, there are much greater benefits to building bridges to others than building walls between us. And there is even greater transformative impact upon the culture when we decide to BE a bridge to people who are different from ourselves – in thought, in race, in culture and even in lifestyle. This is the very essence of Jesus Christ’s legacy and redemptive work upon the earth.

I discovered a few things when I crossed South Street Bridge all those years ago. When I got to the other side I realized there was a better part of my city that I could not access from my West Philly environs. I also found friends who looked different from me, spoke differently than I did and who offered me richer experiences than I could muster in my small West Philly microcosm of friends and family.

And you know what? As I rode my bike back home over The South Street Bridge I realized that I had not only gained new experiences I had also lost a familiar companion.


– PJ

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