Cracks in a Borderland

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything 
That’s how the light gets in‘.

– Leonard Cohen

img_3766-copy.jpgI don’t know if Leonard Cohen ever made it to San Diego, but I wonder what he would have made of a scene I often like to cycle to on days-off. The particular spot is a bench on Mission Bay. From it it is possible to see in sharp relief two disparate worlds at once. To the Southwest is downtown San Diego, the heart of a city that so many  people love to visit or to live in. It has a great climate, beautiful scenery, a laid back attitude to living, and if you have the means, a good life can be enjoyed here in the endless summer. Yet in the background of that American dream of a place, from my bench I can see another world, obscured by topography and showing little more than the hills in the distance, yet it is there, the city of Tijuana, Mexico, across the other side of the borderland we live in.

BorderWallMcAllen-640x424Some people would like to build a wall here. We already have a fence. You can see it at the retail outlets in Chula Vista. Between Banana Republic and Ralph Lauren the fence is close enough to make out the make of cars and the writing on billboards on the other side. Some exchanges are meant to keep us at a distance from one another, and others are intended for a closer encounter. This Saturday will see the latter as folks from my church – my church on both sides of the border in the dioceses of San Diego and Western Mexico – meet at the fence for a service of Holy Communion, passing sacred elements between the bars, like holy contraband at a prison visitation.

2016_bordermass-9902_small_1We live in an open-sourced world yet in many ways also in profoundly closed-off societies. In Holland and France, Australia and Switzerland, Britain and the US, there is something of an opposite and equal reaction occurring to the seismic shifts of postmodernity. From a globalized market to the apparent end states of civic institutions, the digital age has thrown us into an intimacy not entirely of our own making and we are reacting like a patient weaned from their opioid too soon. Just a few years ago, we were celebrating the end of history and its triumph of liberal democratic values and multiculturalism. It is astounding to see how rapidly we have descended into a grim dystopian vision of nationalistic identity which leverages an economy of fear and misplaced anger. We hear that the reign of the ‘elites’ must come to an end, a blanket judgment cast upon intellectuals to politicians to anyone, frankly, who might claim any authorial voice other than the one purchased by wealth and outrage.

Playing along borderIn such a torrid cultural landscape, it might be assumed that a borderland like San Diego-Tijuana would bear the marks of the apparent erosion of American values and the prospect of economic advancement for its citizens. Surely here the all-too porous lines of demarcation need shoring up. Get the bad ones out; keep the good ones in, is the mantra we hear. Yet as I sit on my bench and look out at the intersection of these two American worlds, what strikes me most is how little our life on this northern side of the line is influenced by the other world that lies to the south.

wpid-wp-1398956550902.jpgHomi Bhabha, postcolonial theorist and all-round difficult read, says that the third space between the two sides of a cultural encounter is a space of difference, where the identity of each is split between its appearance and its repetition. Each one mimics the other, and each incrementally alters the other as the encounter leaves a resistant trace of hybridity, where nothing after is quite the same as it was before. True enough, there is a considerable flow of economic goods and services across the Mexican border in this part of the world, and the cultural mores and cuisines can be seen and ingested, yet we in this border town are hardly changed at all, even incrementally, by the profoundly other existence of our fellow human beings to the south. For the truth is that such change requires the bridging not the walling-off of cultures.

wooden-bridge-451620_960_720Bhabha argues that bridges are for gathering as much as they are for crossing. The sharing of the broken body and outpoured blood of Jesus through the cracks in the borderline offer a hint of such a beginning. For when flesh touches flesh, when eye meets eye, when sorrow and silence is shared, we have a chance at communion, a communion no wall can render asunder. The great challenge facing the will of those who wish to wall off this open wound of a border is that once communion has been felt and lived and loved, it is a belonging not easily forgotten. So, go to the fence, and to the walls, and to the places where the cracks in our misunderstanding start to show, and look for light. There is no perfect offering. Just us. Now. One body, in the Body who made us all.

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Over the Line

ashes-to-go-2016-3.jpgI wonder if you might picture a scene. A priest and with him a lay minister of the church, some ashes in hand, and the world at our feet. Behind us is the blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Iridescent beauty as far as the eye can see, and not a bad backdrop for a piece of subversive theology. To our left is a man propped up against the concrete barrier that separates the boardwalk from the beach, with a sign that reads, ‘Homeless Vet: Any help, helps’. And to our right is the seemingly endless flow of traffic, of joggers and cyclists, men in business suits, and boys and girls dressed for a day at the beach. We are, unquestionably, out in the open, exposed, identifiably ecclesiastical in a decidedly post-religious corner of the world.

‘Ashes on the Boardwalk’ is what we advertise it as. Passers-by sidestep toward us to be marked as Christ’s beloved, and as they and I recall our common mortality, the world of the church and the world of the world meet on the edge of America. Yet that hour or so in the sun, whilst attracting stares, and some short-lived fame on complete strangers’ youtube channels, also offers us as the Church the opportunity to ask an all important question: ‘Is there anything you would like me to pray for?’

I ask it of each person as they come up to receive ashes. It is a moment of vulnerability, to be sure, to share with someone you don’t know the longings and pains you carry, yet I can see in the eyes and hear in the sighs of many of them that the question needed asking. ‘Please pray for healing for my sister’. ‘Pray for me to find my purpose’. ‘Pray for peace, I need peace’. The question of prayer and the requests then made bring what is a ritual encounter to another level, the level where the Church is most needed: to the encounter of the heart.

3298259294_51abf94d5f_bThe truth about Christianity is that ours is a faith intended to be lived in the heart and out in the open, in the places and spaces where we will encounter others. Faith belongs, as does the Church, at the threshold of things, in the liminal borderlands of the world where people’s hurts and hopes will be met by those followers of Jesus who will encounter them where they are at, right where they need to be met. Yet for followers of Jesus, it is not merely for a day that one might brave the public life and take one’s faith out for a run. The Christian life is an ongoing vocation to see and be seen by others.

However, if we are to encounter people at the heart of things, in the places in their lives where they need to be met, we will first need to be formed into a change of heart ourselves. Our healing is a prelude to any healing we might offer to others. Our calling to follow Christ requires us to repent, to turn back on the road so that we might face the direction in which Jesus beckons us to follow him, on a road to healing and self-awareness that will not merely do us good, but form us to do good in the lives of others, not of our own power but in becoming in that encounter those thin spaces where God happens within and between us.

33112068482_2f638f8c1e_o.jpgIn the end, grace always seeks to draw us out, and to cross the lines of demarcation that we draw between ourselves and others. May this be a season in the life we share as a nation that encourages fellow travelers to cross over such lines and meet one another just as they need to be met. In doing so, may they find that, as the needs of those around them are heard, and met, light arises in the darkness.