What do you do with a bridge when the river moves?
A few years ago, I stumbled on a photo of a bridge in Honduras. The bridge spanned the Choluteca River. It had survived the devastating destruction of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Mitch was an especially destructive storm; it slammed into the country of Honduras and ended up dumping over two metres of rain in less than four days.
I discovered that this durable bridge was a gift from Japan to the people of Honduras. It was constructed of concrete and steel using modern engineering and construction. It was built to last. A lot of money was invested in the project.
The tragic results lie not in the construction of the bridge but in the nature of rivers. Rivers move. Alas, after a deluge of rain and flooding, the river jumped its banks. It carved a new channel. Rivers do that. They are alive.
Bridges are not. This is especially true of ones built with steel and concrete. In the process, the flood washed away the roads and ramps that connected to the bridge. A bridge to nowhere. This edifice of sound engineering found itself no longer over the river. It could no longer serve its original purpose.
What do you do when the river moves?
I used this story for a set of workshops with church congregations. In the Anglican parishes in Canada, where I have served as a congregational consultant, there has been an immediate resonance with the story. It is recognized as a parable with relevance to the current situation.
For many of these struggling parishes, the river has moved on them.
As is the case with any successful institution, the church was built with the best social and religious engineering available at the time: as a robust and hardy structure to last. A lot of time, energy, sweat and money has been invested. Generations of investment. And it served as a bridge for many to move from birth to death. It spanned the river.
Alas, this was true when the river was in the right place.
Canadian society has changed. The result is that what used to be true has jumped the old banks where the church had constructed itself. And now, the church is left with a well-built bridge: a bridge of pews, brick and stone and stained glass; a bridge of doctrine, dogma colonial history, residential schools, prayer books, and organ music; and a bridge of access to power and influence.
And the river is no longer where it should be.
This brings up options for how to respond to this new situation.
Can we dredge the river back in place? Can we find enough excavators to dig the river back into its rightful channel? How do we move a river?
Maybe it will find its way back under our bridge if we are patient?
Or do we find another way?
Might we accept the reality and power of the river?
Do we begin to reconsider a new bridge? Can we creatively consider spanning the river with lighter and flexible materials: materials able to be adjusted to moving rivers and changing circumstances?
Others have commented to me about this blog post and the Honduran bridge who are not church folks. They see the story as a tale not just about the church but in reference to health care institutions, educational institutions and about political parties in the midst of the river moving. Why do we educate children the way we do? What will happen as our population ages? What will employment look like in light of the tsunami called automation? What happens to social cohesion as the divide between rich and poor continues to widen? How will our institutions serve us when climate change slams us with the largest of societal storms?
What do we do when the river starts to move?