Though I grew up in the countryside of northwestern New Jersey (yes, there is such a place of mostly farmlands in that state!), it was only a couple of miles from another “hub city.” Hagerstown has often been called “The Hub City” due to all the railroads that come into and through the town. And just as we in this Washington County area live near state borders, I also had the same experience. One could look in several directions and see hills and buildings in the neighboring state of Pennsylvania.
The two closest cities were Phillipsburg in New Jersey and Easton in Pennsylvania – immediately across the river from one another. Actually, there were two rivers (Delaware and Lehigh) that met in this location, along with the Morris Canal terminating across the stream from the Lehigh Canal. In every direction were train tracks and bridges. It really was a hub of commerce, transportation and industry.
These train lines often divided neighborhoods both ethnically and socially. Phillipsburg had predominantly Italian neighborhoods living along the flatland tracks next to the river, along with pockets of other European immigrant populations. When some of these folks would find greater economic success in their lives, it was common for them to “move up on the hill.” This neighborhood of larger and newer homes was only about a half-mile away, but “moving on up” often meant more separation than merely 150 feet in elevation.
On the Easton, PA side was a neighborhood where my father’s place of employment was located. Working as a bookkeeper for Swift and Company’s meat packing and distribution business, they were located along the train tracks paralleling the Lehigh River. Hanging sides of beef could be rolled straight from a refrigerated train car parked on their rail siding and into the freezers before being butchered further for local distribution. The immediate, surrounding neighborhood consisted of very old homes and was 100% African-American.
Just across the tracks and canal was another neighborhood, not as old though far from new. It was fully populated by Syrian and Lebanese immigrant populations. Varied neighborhoods of German, Polish and Italian peoples dotted the city.
My father had a Sunday afternoon routine of driving into Easton and going to the post office. He would get the company mail from over the weekend and take it to his office to sort out and get a head start on the work week. I would often go with him on this jaunt because I was fascinated by all the trains and his business location. And I remember sitting there and looking out the side office window and across the siding tracks at the black children playing in the yards of the homes immediately next door. Though obviously very poor, they looked to be having a very good time with homemade play objects and games. I would have liked to join them, but, well, you just didn’t do something like that 55 years ago.
So here I am five-plus decades later basically asking the same question as the pastor of a local church. I look out from this place of life and “across the tracks” at African-American and Hispanic churches and see them worshipping God, and it looks like a lot of fun. And I wonder why I can’t go play with them! Or why they don’t come play with me! Why don’t we do church and worship together? The divides are not as profound as 55 years ago, but they are sadly there … at least more than they should be, in my estimation. After all, we have the same Savior – born to a single mom as a Jewish fellow, two millennia ago. That ought to unite us, right?
“Tracks” should not divide genuine people of the evangelical Christian faith from one another. Those tracks are often racial or socio-economic, but it can be other factors as well. Somewhere, someone needs to not only look across the tracks, but walk across them as well. This is the forever heart of God, it was the pattern of the life of Jesus, it was the spirit of the spread of the gospel in the early church, and it is our destiny for eternity to be with every tribe of people. So why it is so hard for us in Hagerstown (and most other places) in 2017?
Through this series I desire for us to get a vision of raising our eyes to see The Other Side of the Tracks – to look beyond ourselves. And along the way there just might be a challenge to actually go walk across the tracks. You might want to stay tuned for that!