Main Street is usually just like any other small-town boulevard, empty but for a few cars and lined with shops and businesses. Two streetlights at either end direct what little traffic there is. A few people walk along the sidewalk. When they pass one another, heads go down in hopes that the other person will not try to initiate conversation or perhaps in fear that a kind gesture will be ignored.
But a few summers ago, the street was transformed. My small town rallied around a group of talented artists who came to paint murals all over our city. The Walldogs are a group of traveling artists whom cities contract to paint murals—usually of old advertisements, but also of nostalgic town memories. People joined volunteer groups, children painted on the mural near the library and patrons supported the effort at a town auction where one could purchase a replica of a mural.
On the night of the unveiling, families walked out to take a tour of the downtown art gallery. It was surreal—everyone outside after sunset, talking amiably instead of passing each other by. I didn’t want the magical bubble we were in to burst, though I doubted even the murals would let the town maintain its vivacity. So I committed the moment—almost religious in its fleeting sacredness—to memory. And though the streets are back to the quiet ones they once were, Plymouth, Wis., now boasts the largest collection of Walldogs murals ever created, and tourists from all over the country come and take self-guided tours, catching glimpses of our town’s history and character.
Those memories came back to me during a humanities course on the topic of streets I took my first semester at college. My classmates and I asked and discussed: What makes a healthy street? Why are they important at all? One lecture, led by the Rev. Jim Neilson, explored these questions by looking at the intersection of faith, art, beauty and community.
For a healthy street to exist, Father Neilson explained, it needs to have three features. It needs to be safe, it needs to be interesting, and there must be other people. Being social animals, if these three elements exist, we will flock out of doors to be part of it. One slide in his presentation showed a video of an orchestra sitting in the middle of a sidewalk with a sign posted on the conductor’s stand that read “Conduct Us.” People stood up and began waving their arms to conduct the band, which played—following the movements of the amateur. Who wouldn’t come out to watch a performance like that? A healthy street can bring a community together where relationships can happen and thrive.
If even one of the characteristics is missing, however, life on the street suffers. And if the streets within a community or between communities are broken, human connection cannot happen. Instead of taking a risk on a potentially unsafe street, people stay inside, away from others. And if people keep to themselves because of broken streets, prejudices and mistaken beliefs remain unchallenged by human encounter. When community has broken down, often the first step toward healing is reclaiming streets. From the civil rights movement to Occupy Wall Street, activists have raised up social injustice and changed hearts and minds by taking their message to the pavement.
Hearts Wide Open
When Jesus taught, it was often outside, near a road, where members of the community could all gather and listen. Zacchaeus, the short man who wanted to see Jesus, was drawn to the road because he knew the Master was there and was rewarded with meeting him face to face. The hemorrhaging woman, too, was drawn out for the same reason; and by following Jesus on the road, she was cured of her disease. He was the event that drew people outside, and what a reward those who followed received for meeting him there.
Today, Christians everywhere follow in the footsteps of Jesus and other itinerant saints, like Francis of Assisi, taking their talents in education, medicine and craftsmanship to the streets of impoverished areas. When I volunteered on a medical mission trip with my aunt, a physician’s assistant in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, much of our time was spent riding along the busy, dusty streets in a white pick-up truck. The streets were alive with the activities of the poor: bathing, begging and hurting. But there were also moments of joy on those streets. One man ran to our truck to speak with my aunt and her friend because he recognized them from years before. He was overjoyed to see them. There, I could see how when people are touched by a kind word or a small act of service, the connection between the served and the server remains strong for years.
The streets represent the heart and soul of a community: a strong, safe, cared-for road reflects the feelings and relationships of the people within the city. The challenge for us Christians today is to move to the streets. It is our moral obligation to take ourselves entirely—our joys and sorrows, accomplishments and failures, and most importantly our senses of empathy and justice—out to the community.
Like the streets, our common humanity connects each of us to the other. When we meet people, no matter what their faith or creed, it is important for each of us to maintain the road of connection and relationship. Like the attractive roads that bestow a sense of safety, a well-maintained relationship makes people feel safe to open up about their inner struggles, insecurities and needs. If we are able to create a world where all these roads of human connection are comfortably paved and wide open, the work of Jesus Christ can flourish everywhere.
It is not an easy task that God gives us. The potholes of prejudice can make the road bumpy. Litter of grudges and misunderstandings makes the way ugly and difficult. Bridges of peace and understanding have broken down. Some of our sisters and brothers live far away, separated from us by oceans or jungles of poverty, race or creed. To rebuild the roads will take the help of the Holy Spirit. It will take prayer and practice together. But it is not impossible.
Let’s fix the potholes. Let’s rebuild the bridges. Let’s make connections all over the world. And let us walk along the road together.