I recently heard a story that stuck with me. A colleague was telling me about a conversation he had once had with a professor that changed his outlook on a difficult situation. He had grown up attending services and was part of a community at an Episcopal church as a child but in adulthood he converted to Judaism and is now a rabbinical student. Several years ago, when he was studying at a previous academic institution, he found himself struggling to reconcile his past life in the Episcopal Church and his current life as an observant Jew. In his mind they were two opposite experiences that could not be connected, and this was a source of deep anxiety and pain for him. Finally he brought this struggle to a trusted professor, who happened to be Vincent Harding, an African-American historian, scholar, and activist who worked alongside Dr. King in the civil rights movement. Harding, who was also a devoted Mennonite, listened to my colleague’s story. Then he replied: “It sounds like you are trying to find a bridge between your past and your present, your former life and your current life now. You don’t need to keep looking for the bridge. You are the bridge.”
My colleague told me that this completely transformed the way he understood his experience and his struggle. Seeing himself as the bridge, rather than looking for a bridge elsewhere, helped him to view the relationship between his past and his present in a more cohesive and wholesome way.*
I was struck by two elements of his story. First, it took a mentor and teacher of a different faith (who coincidentally, was also a convert to the Mennonite church) to share this insight and bring an important shift in perspective to the table. What might we be missing if we only seek out advice, wisdom, and insights from the people who look or think or believe like us? I’m not suggesting that those leaders and mentors from our own communities lack perspective and wisdom. However, sometimes it takes a different perspective to help us get moving, to click into gear, or to take that first step towards change, healing, or wholeness.
Second, the idea of being your own bridge has continued to resonate with me ever since I first heard this story. In the world of interfaith dialogue and cooperation, we often talk about building bridges between communities: Jewish and Christian, Hindu and Muslim, religious and humanist. But do we ever talk about being the bridge? How might we, as faith leaders, interfaith activists, and community organizers, embody the idea of being bridges instead of simply building them?
A few things come to mind. First, being a bridge necessitates openness. Sometimes a bridge crosses a small creek, and other times it spans a rushing river or a massive bay. Sometimes the bridges are easily found and other times the chasm may appear too wide to cross, and any bridge seems unreasonable or unlikely. Being a bridge means that you are always on the lookout for ways to connect people or groups who might never think to reach out otherwise.
Being a bridge requires responsibility. Along with seeking opportunities of connectivity, to be a bridge means that you take ownership in the relations and connections that might form or are currently forming. This is not to say that you must bear the whole burden when things become difficult, or take all of the credit when healthy relationships are formed. In interfaith work, taking ownership and being responsible means creating safe spaces, maintaining honesty, following up when things are unclear, asking questions, withholding judgment, and listening with intention.
Finally, being a bridge implies vulnerability. While it’s true that to cross to another side, people must walk on the bridge, don’t confuse this with being walked all over! Vulnerability in this sense means that you become invested in making these connections; you become a resource of encouragement, strength, or (dare I say?) suspension, if necessary, during difficult or challenging encounters. Relationship building is not easy work, but a willingness to be vulnerable provides opportunities for trust to grow within and among all parties involved.
I believe in the power of creative thinking and the active imagination to open up new ways of learning and being in the world. In our interfaith work, what are other ways that we might embody the idea of being the bridge instead of just building them?
* Story shared with permission
Image by Nicolas Raymond via Flickr Commons.