My dear friend Rev. Dr. Shannon Daley-Harris recently preached a sermon at Princeton University Chapel titled “Draw the Circle Wide.” She opened by sharing memories from time she spent living and working in Belfast in the late 1980s, as the Troubles between Protestant Unionists and loyalists and Catholic Republicans and nationalists had segmented Northern Ireland’s capital city by the Peace Wall, “a lovely name for a hideous structure: concrete blocks, bricks, steel, barbed wire, a physical representation and enforcement of a divided community.”
She described life by that dividing line. “Armed soldiers in Kevlar vests and armored vehicles patrolled both sides, representatives of the ruling Protestant Unionists. When patrolling the Catholic Republican side of the wall, disenfranchised young men from that side of the community would hurl petrol bombs . . . I taught at a school on the Catholic side of the Wall up the Falls Road. Seared into my memory is the image of a small child leaving the school and approaching a fatigue-clad soldier, crouched by the Wall a few yards away. He was clutching his weapon. She was clutching a crayon drawing, and held it out, wanting to show him what she drew. He looked at it, offered admiring words—he must have been someone’s dad or uncle—and then as the small child climbed aboard the school van, he turned to his fellow soldier and said, gesturing at the whole situation, ‘I can’t bloody stand this.’”
Rev. Daley-Harris explained that as an American visitor, she had unusual freedom to cross the city and an outsider’s sense of perspective: “Several days a week I would take an IRA-run Black Taxi to travel up the Falls Road to tutor unemployed Catholic adults, and work in an after-school program. Other days I would take a city bus–what the Protestants used—to tutor young men who had been incarcerated for Protestant paramilitary offenses. As someone who came into Belfast as an outsider, with abstract knowledge but no lived experience of either side of the community and their history and hurts, present and pain, future and fears, it was in some ways easier to see the tragedy—and in a sense absurdity—of all the invisible lines as well as those that were visible. Children who would never meet and play and learn together. Adults who read different newspapers, took different transportation, frequented different pubs, even played different instruments. Couples who faced threats for marrying across the lines. Lines that created and maintained suspicions, stereotypes, fears, and hatred.” She then had a question: “I wonder, what tragic and even absurd invisible lines and walls do you think someone coming from the outside to the U.S. would see?”
“Do you think they’d see dividing lines of race and ethnicity, dividing lines of income and education, dividing lines of gender identity and geography, dividing lines of sexuality and social media and news sources, and, yes, dividing lines of political party and religious faith? I wonder, what lines do you think they would see?”
Rev. Daley-Harris’s message that morning was that we are all called to do the work of dismantling our divisions and instead to see each other and every child as beloved, precious children of God. Instead of drawing lines, we are called to draw wider circles. She added: “When we know that truth, really know that truth, I wonder how we will find ourselves called to recreate this world, to challenge systems and structures, stereotypes and segregation, politics and policies that deny the humanity and beloved preciousness of anyone. Will we live it out as we support and protect trans children seeking gender affirming care and stand against book banning and for AP courses that tell the truth of our history? Will it change how we act with and for immigrant families held back by lines of buoys in Texas or offloaded by buses in New York? Will that truth call us to advocate for the millions of children pushed back under the poverty line when the expanded child tax credit expired?” Drawing wider circles that welcome others in is a mandate and responsibility that will make us richer.