It’s no secret that it’s hard to connect in our slice of South Jersey. The whole region is cut up into little fiefdoms where local politicos vie for relevance. Highways and imaginary lines keep people separate. There’s a long history of separation and atomization. Everything is divided up.
Infrastructure Divides Us
Camden County received millions of dollars in stimulus money a few years back, and as a result, for the past 2 years, it has been nearly impossible to travel. They are perpetually fixing bridges everywhere. And that’s a good thing, I suppose. 11% of Camden County bridges are structurally deficient (yes you read that right… 11%). The biggest one being the Walt Whitman Bridge, which sees about 200,000 cars go over it daily (by the way at $5/car, if half of those cars are going into Philadelphia, that sucker makes at least a half million dollars a day!). Where Route 130 crosses Cooper River (the big mess up by Village Thrift and the driving range), the bridge was over 50 years old. It’s not a bad idea to replace it despite the inconvenience. If you drive around here, I’m sure you’re dealing with delays all over the place. I feel like I’m constantly getting detoured. The other day on my short trip from my house to my office (usually 10 minutes), two different detours made the trip 30 minutes. I know the region really well, and I can’t navigate it because the bridges don’t work and the roads are shut down. All of that makes our region feel, at least right now, even more divided than it already is.
Municipalities Divide Us
Of course, all of the municipalities are a major factor in the division as well. The South Jersey region Circle of Hope exists in is a lot like Philadelphia in terms of geographic region. It’s roughly the same size with way fewer people… which actually makes the region feel bigger because people are more spread out. The difference, of course between Philadelphia and this side of the river, is that this side of the river ultimately developed local independent municipalities. So rather than one city with outlying suburbs that are within city limits, along the river you have several little cities… and then inner ring suburbs… and then outer ring suburbs.
It wasn’t always like that. In fact, at one point in time, this whole region was called Newton Township. Newton Township was established in 1695 (so that’s 80 years before the Revolutionary War). It was a part of Gloucester County before Camden County even existed. In fact, the city of Camden itself was established within Newton Township in 1828. Post Civil War, on February 23, 1865 (about 150 years ago), Haddon Township was established using a little bit of Newton Township… and by March 7, 1871 , Newton Township was officially dissolved. When it was dissolved, what remained were individual municipalities that once made up the larger one – Haddon Twp, Gloucester City, Camden, Collingswood, Audubon, and Haddonfield. Virtually simultaneously, neighboring Delaware Township was dividing into Cherry Hill, Merchantville, and Pennsauken. Those are all the major parts of the region we live in and love. And those municipalities, like the rest of the municipalities in our region, are divided in all sorts of ways. They have their own fire departments, they have their own police forces, they have their own local politicians, they have their own rules and regulations and inspectors for those rules and regulations, they have their own ethos. And I think they work really hard to keep their sense of municipal identity.
Some of that’s OK – but it does cause division. And I think that division is especially noteworthy when we’re trying to figure out how to be the church in the region. Not only are we doing the huge thing as Circle of Hope – crossing the divide of the Delaware River and the bridges to be one church, but we’re also trying to figure out how to cross those municipal divides to be a particular congregation. That’s a big deal.
Highways Divide Us
And then there’s the highways as another major contributor to division in our region. My friends in college used to make fun of NJ, saying that it was nothing but highways. And of course I defended NJ’s honor… but they were sorta right… there are a lot of highways. And our region is fascinating when you think about it in terms of highways: Route 130 (aka Crescent Blvd), Rte 168 (aka Black Horse Pike), Rte 30 (aka White Horse Pike), Rte 41 (aka King’s Highway), Rte 70 (aka Marlton Pike), Rte 38 (aka Kaighn Ave), Rte 73, I-295, I-676, the NJ Turnpike…all right here – within five miles of where I sit… in fact 130, 30, 38, and 70 all basically pool right here at doorstep of Marlton and Crescent. Rte. 130 is a drastic dividing line… it divides the inner ring suburbs from the urban areas of Gloucester City, Camden, and Pennsauken… all the way up to Willingboro and Burlington City… and all the way down to Woodbury and beyond.
And those obstacles are not easy to overcome: failing infrastructure which makes it difficult to connect, paired with municipal divide (especially in terms of ethos)… which then gets combined with a highway system that allows you to pass through municipalities without actually being in that municipality. It’s a wonder that we’re connected at all! So much is trying to keep us apart, trying to keep us in our pod, trying to create barriers that divide us.
Give that divisive context, you can imagine why I was so disappointed this week to hear that we hit another snag in the plan to connect Camden and Rowan University by light rail. The River Line which presently runs from Camden to Trenton has been a brilliant way to connect the region. Over the last 10 years, connection has been made easier, especially for a vast majority of people who are pinned against the Delaware River by Rte. 130 and who do not have access to to personal vehicles but rely on public transportation. The River Line is quick, easy and affordable. The plan is to extend the River Line all the way down to Rowan University… basically connecting all of Western South Jersey. But more division is holding it all up. Not surprisingly, politically motivated entities don’t want to take responsibility for keeping the project on track (pun intended). And so yet again, we remain divided.
Jesus is breaking down barriers and bridging divisions. Paul tells us:
Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us. He canceled the detailed rules of the law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace. He reconciled both as one body to God by the cross, which ended the hostility to God.
So here’s a list of ways to join with Jesus in our region.
First, embody peace.
Paul says, Christ is our peace. We are tied to a faith tradition that actually values peace. And I think it is to our benefit to really embrace that! In a world that is perpetually at war, in a country that admits to 4,700 deaths via secret drone strike, in a region and in a city where the murder rate per capita is among the highest in the county – peace needs to be embodied. We ought to be on the frontlines of prayer for the region. We need to be actively speaking out for gun control. We need to be talking about our drone President. We need to be engaging in opposition to police corruption, in opposition to the drug trade in the region, and in opposition to all kinds of violence perpetrated on women and children in the region.
Christ is our peace. We ought to be peace in our region. That’s basic discipleship.
Second, be incarnate.
Paul says, with his body. The incarnation is a fusion of the sacred/secular, spiritual/political, heaven and earth. We ought to have a physical presence in the region. Fusing what God is doing with what’s going on. Our actual bodies ought to be showing up all over the place. I got to see a beautiful picture of this on Saturday when so many people from Marlton & Crescent showed up at the Collingswood Book Festival. People came out to support local authors, ignite connections, and make the best of a rainy day. I met a ton of people I didn’t know… several because a friend introduced me. Jesus actually calls us his body. And as a body we ought to be incarnate all over the place. Join a team, take a class, go to the event, be a regular somewhere.
Jesus got rid of barriers with his body. As his body, with our bodies, we ought to be doing the same. Again, basic discipleship.
Third, stop playing by the rules.
Paul says, he canceled the detailed rules of the law. I think the rules in our region dictate some of the divisions that exist. Rte. 130 is a barrier, so we’re told. Collingswood is different than Pennsauken, so we’re told. Camden doesn’t have anything good going on in it, so we’re told. Cherry Hill is the suburbs, so we’re told. And I don’t think we should be buying into those narratives. They exist to keep us a part and to allow the powers that be to remain in power. I don’t want to play by those rules.
Like Jesus, we ought to play by the rules that make sense to us and to the mission of God. That’s what will create a new humanity in the region. That will make disciples.
The way I’ve been imagining Jesus reconcile the region is by getting rid of the barriers and looking for the spaces where natural relating occurs. I want to connect. I want to help people connect. I want to champion things that make it easier to connect. Who’s up for that?