Two years ago, I had the honor of receiving an international ministry study grant from the University of Chicago Divinity School to travel to Ghana. For nine weeks I engaged in a pilgrimage, traversing the country from the northernmost regions bordering the desert to the coast in memory of the countless Africans who were forced into slavery. While in the western region traveling in a remotely populated area I came across one of the most traumatic experiences I’ve ever happened upon in my life: a child, perhaps 13 or 14 years old, face down in the road with blood spilled from his mouth. No doubt he had been hit by a vehicle and left for dead. Perhaps more painful was that I could not stop - as I tried to exit the vehicle my guide held my arm tightly telling me that if I were to be found with the body, corrupt police would deem me the responsible party and take me into custody at the need to allocate blame on someone for the crime. Absent emergency response systems, access to hospitals, and a trusted police system, our only recourse was to travel 15 miles to the next police station in hopes of intervention.
This very real experience brings context to the Jericho Road that Christ shares in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). When Jesus offers the legal expert the example story of a man attacked and left for dead on this road connecting Jericho and Jerusalem, the hearers of the time would immediately have understood the setting. The road was a treacherous, winding pathway in which travelers were not only subject to harm by nature of the terrain but because of how unprotected, vulnerable travelers were regularly attacked and killed along the way. Red colored limestone and the constant killing brought forth the nickname ”Way of Blood”.
While the parable begins with the question of “who is my neighbor,” there is perhaps an even greater question at bay. In Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous sermon, Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence (delivered one year to the day before he was assassinated), he urges the listener to consider:
“On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar ... It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Offering food, drink, and clothing in times of lack; assembling resources for those most vulnerable in times of national disaster; and responding to beggars and those struck down on life's highways are services central to the life of churches and other religious institutions in our country. Residential service communities, rehabilitation services, and our modern day social services all are rooted in work of faith communities over 100 years ago. The work of transforming roads — the often invisible structures that oppress and cause people to need these services — is a different beast that is much more challenging for our faith families to tackle.
We can't turn on a phone, look at a computer, or read a newspaper without coming face to face with the great many roads that require transformation: security for youth born and raised in our country at risk of being deported, the overwhelming number Black and Brown Americans incarcerated, the incredibly rapid growing income inequality and demise of the middle class, public declaration of Nazism and white supremacy, lack of police oversight and accountability, quality education for all children regardless of zip code, and affordable housing for all. These roads - and so many more - are complicated, rife with painful histories, and are in dire need of our faith communities to step in and change.
As King remarked, the transformation of oppressive structures — maintaining neighborhood watch on life's highway — is the realization of genuine compassion. It is a charge for religious institutions to participate in the transformation of systems and structures so that all neighbors, all humanity, whether in a remote location in Ghana or Illinois, can travel the road with dignity, safety, and security.