Tuesday 3 September 2013


This article was originally published in Christian Courier, Issue 2963, June 24, 2013.

On March 13, my wife and I were driving from Western Michigan back to Canada via the Blue Water Bridge at Sarnia listening to the news of the election of the new Pope on the radio. We heard that the white smoke had ascended, and we waited for the announcement. As the commentators were filling the time of waiting, one noted that “pontiff” means “bridge maker.” How ironic, we mused, as we crossed the bridge into Canada at that moment.

We arrived at our friend’s condo in Sarnia just as the new pontiff was announced. He’s the first pope Francis, named after the saint who was called to rebuild the church through a ministry to the poor. This is a wonderful symbolic emphasis for the first Western and Southern Hemisphere pontiff. May he be a bridge builder.

A Google search reveals that the word “pontiff” is related to a variety of leaders. Priests, leading powerful Romans, and, ultimately, the Emperor were referred to as pontiffs. Some object to this word and its priestly idea. While the image may be misconstrued, we can all benefit from the concept of being bridge builders, or pontiffs.

Between churches
With whom do we need to construct spans? Earlier on our bridge crossing day, an Institute of Christian Studies graduate and supporter told us about his work with many Catholic leaders in Southeast Michigan. How long, he wondered, does our church need to continue “protesting”? What an intriguing question. Is it helpful to continue to call one segment of the church the “Protestant” church? What bridges need to be built among churches?

We have a long history of protest. The Wolthuis side of my family comes from Ulrum in the Netherlands. They were church organists in the church where the Afshceiding, the 1834 church split often considered the forerunner of the Christian Reformed Church, began. Another side of my family, the Ditmars, were part of the “Remonstrants.” My grandparents’ church in Kalamazoo, Michigan, was for a while the Protesting Christian Reformed Church. Within the family of Dutch Reformed churches in North America there are over 20 different denominations. How long to do we keep protesting?

Many see “protest” as negative, just another way of complaining. At its root “to protest” is to “to declare publicly, to testify.” It is to speak against injustice on behalf of the oppressed and powerless. Too often, however, we build barriers, not bridges, in our protest.

A passion for justice aroused in the 1960s led people to attempt a march across a bridge in Selma, Alabama because they believed that black and white people could live and serve God better without mandated racial divides. The bridge walkers sang “We Shall Overcome” the disparities, the injustices, the persecutions and the heartbreak-- not in our own strength, but through God who loves us and wants us to love each other.

Like many Canadian Christian schools, ICS was birthed during the protest era of the 1960s. We seek to build a bridge between the Christian community and the academic world. We protest against the idea of a neutral secular education on one side and an isolated church on the other. We are ambassadors of the love of God to the academic world and of the world of learning to the Christian community.

Bridging the gaps
We find enormous differences and disagreements in today’s society, within churches and within families, but does it have to lead to division and conflict? Can our bridge building skills be turned to connect with others, rather than developing internal walls? Can our bridge construction become a testimony of grace and hope?

Since I am from Michigan, my vision is shaped by bridges. There is the strange ongoing story of the privately owned Ambassador Bridge between Windsor and Detroit. I also think of the story of the daring building of the Mackinaw Bridge. Ah, to be a bridge builder who risks the winds, who longs for a connection to the other shore, who hopes for safety for all the workers, who holds on to the new ironwork to put it in its proper place.

I believe in one holy catholic church. I am excited about a new pontiff who seeks to bring the church back to the needs of the poor, the disenfranchised and the creation. Blessings to the new pontiff as he heads his construction crew. I want us to be bridge builders, too. Read John 17:20-23 and Ephesians 2:14-22.

To whom do you passionately and daringly seek to build a bridge?

Tom Wolthuis, President