By David Nixon
I needed an adventure as a relief from COVID, from the lockdowns, from the incessant Zoom meetings and Zoom worship, from the rapid decision-making in uncertainty, and above all from absorbing and containing everybody’s anxieties and griefs, including my own. I needed an adventure that would work, one that was possible. America beckoned — not Australia, whose different Covid rules from state to state seemed very complicated, and not India, which was still deeply in thrall to this awful pandemic — and it was a good choice. But how to make it an adventure?
I had never been to the West Coast and only once to the Midwest, so how about joining the myriads who had traveled across America, in search of something (themselves often), hearing echoes of Kerouac, who “often dreamed of going West to see the country, always vaguely planning and never taking off”? But this was not going to be on the road; it was going to be mostly by rail, and the cynical among you might say quickly here that Amtrak would always provide an adventure whether you wanted it or not.
This was to be part of a clergy sabbatical after some decades of ministry, with the express intention of looking to the future. And so to reflect on this adventure within a “God-frame” is entirely appropriate. Having completed the trip, three themes suggest themselves: journey; friendship and hospitality; wealth and poverty — and all of this situated within a concept of America “at the crossroads,” an imperial power in decline but still a great imperial power.
Journeys in Scripture are both literal (Abraham and the founding of the nation, the Exodus, the exile to Babylon, Nazareth to Bethlehem and back, rowing — or walking — to “the other side of the lake,” the Via Dolorosa, the Damascus road) and metaphorical (the Jewish development of knowledge and love of Yahweh, the slow learning of Jesus’ disciples, a growing Christology in the early Church). Some are willingly undertaken, others not. The outer physical journey runs alongside the inner journey towards God, others, and self.
Our itinerary was to start in New York City, then a train to Albany to meet a friend, across the Adirondacks by car, a stay in Syracuse, a train to Chicago, then the Californian Zephyr train to San Francisco. Within this, there were small second-order journeys too: taking the Highline in NYC and up 100 stories to the viewing platform at The Edge, hearing the history and geography of Native Americans at a museum visit, walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, bouncing around the San Francisco streets on a cable car, witnessing the LGBT stars set in the pavement of Castro Street, and seeing the slow passing of time and space at Yosemite. The actual train was 11 hours late, mostly owing to a storm near Salt Lake City, and we were left (a little unceremoniously) on the side of the road in San Francisco at 4 o’clock in the morning.
What might be surprising is that these sorts of holidays seem to mimic the human journey of life and the Christian journey of faith. Perhaps that’s why we do them, as a conscious or unconscious means of reflection on the expected and unexpected. And a key point to determine is what matters more, the journey itself or the destination point. The idea of slow travel is to see more of what passes — in both the human and natural world. So for our long train journey and our visits, the people mattered as did the views, and neither could be gained in a hurry. (The exception was The Edge — I wanted the view but did not want the slow ascent up the skyscraper.) So we should “smell more of the roses” on the way, and probably the weeds; not too much remarkable in that. But the theological point is a bit more profound: our Christian destination is certainly God, “to praise, reverence, and serve,” according to the Jesuits, and Christian faith is teleological. “Are we on our way to God, or not?” is a crucial question.
But can we focus so much on the end point as to miss the joys and sorrows of the journey —? If our focus is too exclusively on God, if we remain blind to the world around us, both natural and human, we risk perhaps cheapening the gift of life itself. Is the cable car too simplistic an image: the ups and downs and curves of life, the rattles and the bangs, the just-about-hanging-on, and the same price whatever the length of the journey? It is the Jesus of the Gospels who accompanies us on this journey, who breaks bread with us, who engages with both rich and poor, and whose friendship and hospitality we value.
I should like to take a moment and pay tribute here to our two main hosts for this trip, for their generosity and welcome. Canon Carl Turner and his wife, Alison, hosted us in New York City, and Professor Rick McLain undertook a similar task in Syracuse, as well as being an indefatigable driver. One of the joys of the long train journey was chatting to people at mealtimes. Because the sleeping cars were almost full, we always had to sit with others in the restaurant, and our British accents provided the opening salvo for interesting conversations. They were on holiday like us, crossing their country by train, but better informed about the niceties of Amtrak. Equally, the staff were fantastic — courteous, humorous, informative, and very patient. We formed our own unique world; for example, there was a period in which because we were running late the time inside the train was an hour behind that outside.
For people of faith, sharing food and drink with others is always eucharistic, as it was on the road to Emmaus. The “scriptures” we opened to one another were the stories we told each other about our lives; our food became holy through our actions together; we even left an offering in the form of a tip. In these circumstances, I am always reminded of the story told by British rabbi, writer, and broadcaster, Lionel Blue. He described a visit to a church, in which, as a Jew, he could not really participate, especially in Holy Communion. But afterward, refreshments of tea and sticky buns were offered warmly and generously, and he partook. The sticky buns and tea were not a sacrament. But weren’t they, in some sense, sacramental?
I was surprised by the number of homeless people on the streets of San Francisco, most of whom were Black men, and many of whom appeared to have mental health difficulties; and I am always struck by the disparities of wealth and poverty visible in American and European cities, including my own. I also don’t buy into many Christians’ interpretation of Matthew’s Beatitude about “the poor in spirit” unless it clearly includes those who are indigent. I think I know where Jesus would be on this point, as evinced in his practice in the gospels and in his own impoverishment as he journeyed toward the cross. Being alongside those who are poor is not an act of charity, but our own discipleship. It is from those who are marginalized that we can learn most about God. I am also reminded that those who crossed America in previous generations were not tourists, not even the self-seekers of the “beat generation,” but desperate families driven by exclusion, hunger, and poverty.
During this trip, the imperial power of America was visible in both positive and negative ways, but the tiny cross-section of life we experienced did not suggest a nation at a crossroads. Rather, we witnessed the generous friendship of people at many levels, which creates a strong bulwark against destructive forces.
The Rev. Prebendary Dr. David Nixon is rector of St. Thomas Exeter in the County of Devon in Southwest England. He is a prebendary (honorary canon) of Exeter Cathedral and an honorary senior research fellow in the Theology and Religion Department of Exeter University. His doctorate was published by Ashgate in 2013 as Stories from the Street: A Theology of Homelessness.