Walls that don’t divide?

My latest column for the Christian Courier.

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Can walls do anything other than divide us from each other? Could a wall actually create the conditions for encounter, rather than simply preventing human exchange and conversation?

One of the interesting architectural features of the college where I teach is a wall that accomplishes two tasks at the same time – it opens a space even as it encloses it.
The Presbyterian College was constructed in three wings around an open space; the building is U-shaped with a courtyard in the middle. The courtyard has benches, a perennial garden and raised boxes as part of a small urban garden. It opens onto a street running just north of the property. However, this opening (the open side of the U) is not empty or wide open. Rather, there is a free-standing brick wall that runs along that side of the courtyard.

But how can the courtyard be described as open if there is a wall enclosing it along the street? Well, the courtyard is open in two ways. The wall has two iron gates embedded within it – gates that are never closed or locked and which permit a free flow of people. Equally important, the wall is not a solid brick wall – there are cross-shaped (+) openings within it. From the outside, these perforations allow a glimpse into the courtyard and garden. And from the inside they give a sense of the movement, light and bodies just outside the wall.

Without this wall the courtyard could not be the oasis it is in the middle of the city – street noise and visual clutter would invade the space. Yet without the gates and the openings in the wall, there would be no interplay between inside and outside. The wall, we might say, is a porous or permeable boundary and it is not uncommon to find neighbours enjoying their lunch in the courtyard, or sitting quietly in the garden. From the college side, the world is as much within our space as outside it, and our movement into the community begins in the courtyard, rather than on the adjacent sidewalk.

This wall that does not divide is a tremendous gift to the college itself, and perhaps also serves as a meaningful metaphor for the life of Christian communities. Can we imagine the church as a body that has a porous boundary – the church as both enclosed and open? A body with clear dimensions and strong sense of identity and place, yet where the line between inside and outside is not always clear. Such a community is one that is always, already in conversation with those who live around it. And such a community is one that finds neighbours as part of its life, even as its worship and prayers and service happen within sight and hearing of neighbours.

In addition to passersby enjoying a quiet moment in the courtyard, you are likely to find a Tai chi group silently at work, or a group of co-workers chatting over lunch at a table. On the other hand, there are moments when conference-goers from the college spill out into the courtyard with guitars and vocals – the sounds of worship spilling onto the streets. In which case there are inevitably curious, wondering faces looking in from the gates.

To be the church is to live confidently in Christ; it is to know who we are in him. But to be alive in Christ is also to dwell at precisely the point of intersection between God and the world that God is redeeming in Christ. We are invited to build walls that enclose/open – walls that create the conditions for loving encounter.

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