October 14, 2005

One Strand at a Time


1542 story4 capf I had an extra million dollars and the inclination to give it away, I'd probably create the Homan Walsh Possibilities Award, and annually bestow a healthy chunk of that money on some Adventist who goes about the difficult business of bridging the divides among us.

Lacking the money, if not the inclination, let me tell you about Homan and why we need a prize that carries his name.

In 1848, 10-year-old Homan Walsh of what is now Niagara Falls, New York, achieved a certain minor celebrity by being the first to fly a kite across the 800-foot gorge of the Niagara River. Engineers commissioned to build the first suspension bridge across the chasm had been stumped about how to complete the task until one of them landed on the idea of using a kite line as the basis for the bridge. Young Homan won the competition they sponsored (and a $10 prize) on the second day by successfully landing his homemade kite, which he nicknamed "the Union," on the American side of the river.

Once secured to a tree on the American shore, his kite line provided the means over which to draw a slightly heavier cord, followed by an even heavier rope . . . followed by a metal wire . . . followed by a braided metal cable . . . until the large metal cables from which the oak-plank roadway could be suspended were in place. Within four months both pedestrian and carriage traffic was moving over the previously unbridgeable chasm.

1542 story4I've loved that story since I first read it--at Homan's age--in my fourth-grade reading book. I certainly liked the idea that a child of 10 was once responsible for the foundation of what became a great architectural structure. But even more important was the confirmation of an idea I was beginning to dimly grasp at that tender age: Great divides are often first bridged by things as slight as kite strings.

In high school and college, I found additional evidence for the truth I learned from Homan. History is replete with instances in which undaunted persons--peasants, middle folk, and presidents--ended arguments, healed conflicts, and achieved peace through beginnings as humble as handwritten notes and words as simple as apologies. Relationships gone wrong, I learned, could sometimes be rebuilt across the apparently unsubstantial strands that said "I'm sorry," "You're right," or "Can we make peace?"

Years of pastoral ministry provided further illustrations. I've seen marriages restored, warring church factions pacified, and theological opponents confounded when one party to the duel chose, instead, to land a kite string of understanding on the farther shore. From such slight beginnings bridges have been built, slowly assembled from materials at hand, until what had seemed an impossible divide became a highway for renewal and respect. Over the slender string of an apology, draw a slightly heavier cord of conversation . . . followed by an even heavier rope of intentional prayerfulness . . . until the gap is spanned.

One consequence of the rapidly increasing diversity of the Adventist Church is that our differences too easily become divides. On a landscape that used to be populated only by familiar people, we now discover fellow believers of different races, dialects, social customs, and theological convictions. Troubled by the newness and the strangeness of it all, we're tempted to retreat to one side of the river and allow the torrents of prejudice and ignorance to mark our boundaries.

Here's to the Homans among us who still send up slender kite lines of understanding and conversation--who still have an interest in the other shore--and are willing to use the tools at hand to build the all-important bridges.

You there--you with the honest heart--your task today is this: Go fly a kite.

Bill Knott is an associate editor of the Adventist Review.