October 2016

Roadside reflections

The roadside is an interesting place, writes Alice Priest. It’s an in-between place, a liminal space – for hostage-takers, healings and heroes to emerge.

BY Alice Priest

Part I.

The roadside is an interesting place. It’s a place where assistance is often needed, where a new view of life’s passing traffic can be seen, and an aside to where the main event is happening. The roadside is the setting for parables. It’s an in-between place, a liminal space – for hostage-takers, healings and heroes to emerge.

When you’re running a 42.2 kilometre marathon, you want to avoid the roadside. In Berlin the carefully measured running route is marked in two stripes of blue paint snaking endlessly along the bitumen of the road. Not one of the some 41,000 competitors want to stray too far from those lines; every step away adds, little by little, to the distance to be run. The roadside is the place for the watching crowd, the drink stations, the aid stations, the failure to run.

The roadside aid station is where I found myself 27ks into the Berlin marathon just a few weeks ago. A big thirst, aching kidneys, and a sense of a bodily power failure put me into an ambulance and off to a Berlin emergency department mid race. This aside never having crossed my mind when I began, I didn’t have a cent on me. I didn’t have a scrap of identification, a passport, phone, contact numbers or a Plan B; just a sweaty singlet, shorts, my race number – and a phoneless friend and fellow runner who would be waiting for me at the finish line I was never going to get to.

Despite my limited German, lack of ID and money, I was afforded every care. Six or seven hours and a couple of drips later, I was released with a cheery wave, a record of my tests and treatment, and no bill of charge. I felt a keen sense of privilege, of having been attended to by a Good Samaritan; the German healthcare system had picked me up off the roadside and seen to my healing. I felt keenly the stories of many others, more seriously weary, thirsty and powerless, along a thousand foreign roadsides, struggling in a marathon of sheer survival, awaiting a Good Samaritan.

Part II.

A week later I found myself walking alongside an inner city road in Munich. My attention was drawn from my efforts to simultaneously walk and orientate myself on the city map folded in my hands to the raising of an angry voice in front of me. The tone compelled me to seek the source of the trouble. I registered the source of the raised voices. The dishevelled white guy a couple of steps in front of me was calling out provocatively to the black guy with low-slung jeans talking into his mobile a couple of steps ahead of him. I didn’t have to concentrate very hard even with my limited German, to work out what the white guy was demanding.

“Nach Hause! Nach Hause!” “Go home! Go home!”

“Deutsch sprechen! Nur Deutsch sprechen! Wir sind in Deutschland! Hier sprechen wir Deutsch!” “Speak German! Speak only German! This is Germany! We speak German here!”

The white guy was demanding the black guy take his mobile call, being quietly and privately conducted in a language other than German, off the public street and into his private home. The black guy responded in German and then in the universal language of “F–k you, man!” and continued with his conversation and walking. The white guy continued to shout after him until the roadside path split, taking them in opposite directions.

I caught up my few steps lag behind the German insister at the lights. I could see him buoyed up with the energy of his exchange, his sense of power in putting the black guy in his place. I wanted to get out my mobile phone and begin a loud conversation in English right in this guy’s face. I wanted to tell him that he should go home and blow his offensive cigarette smoke there rather than blowing his pollution down a public street. I knew he would never have the guts to harass me for not speaking German on the phone as he had the black guy. I knew that this exchange really had nothing to do with speaking German at all. I was white. I spoke English but I looked German. I was a well-dressed woman. I was equal to his power.

In many ways Germany has modelled the spirit of the Good Samaritan, willingly taking in many of the flood of refugees from neighbouring and distant roadsides, officially more than a million in the past year. My friend in Munich said unofficially, since Germany has open borders, he guessed the figure might easily be more like two, or even two-and-a-half, times that number. The people of Munich, rubbing shoulders and sharing their city footpaths with the reality of many of these road-siders, have featured as a people of conflicting hospitality and hostility towards those making Germany their new home.

I wondered as I walked, in our own cities and nations, can we simply be crossing over to the other side, or running over and down, those we find on our much-beloved roadsides who don’t look or sound like us? I thought back to my own recent roadside experience in Berlin and knew that all are entitled to, as I myself had freely received, at least being addressed and attended to in the first language of us all – the language of humanity – of human kindness.

Part III.

The narrow stone-paved roadsides of Rome’s ancient city are no place for walking in the sky-high heels being displayed in the super expensive up-market shopfronts of Via Del Corso. My running shoes were much more sensible for getting around the streets rich with fashion, rich in history, rich with contradiction.

Much recovered from my Berlin run, I jogged the narrow roadside path following the walls around the Vatican. I felt its vast, barricading presence, keeping me at bay, keeping me out. It struck me afresh that those walls contain a palace. St Peter’s, the symbolic heart of my Church, is a monumental palace with a wall around it: at once a sign of faith and a symbol of worldly wealth, power, privilege, and (until very recently) replete with princely papal robes and polished prada shoes.

The poor stable, the Jesus who engaged with the blind beggars on the roadside, I didn’t readily meet in the churches of Rome and, to be honest, it’s always easier not to. The call to build and to be the Church on the roadside of the begging poor is hard. I too want to put up a Vatican-sized wall around the palace of my own meagre belongings and wealth.

There’s a church on every roadside corner. There are beggars at every church door. They know that amongst the streams of tourists are the faithful, the Christians, like me, called to charity, called to do the works of Mercy, to attend to others with the language of humanity. They literally cry out like blind Bartimaeus, pleading for your coins and your good faith. It’s easy to turn a blind-eye. It’s easy to pretend that I don’t speak the language – to deny my knowledge of the human tongue.

But it is the parable of the roadside Samaritan I am given as my exemplar. It is the blind beggar, “sitting by the roadside”, who Jesus sees, calls and attends to. I will find myself again on that same roadside, needing help or being needed for the help I can give.

Alice Priest

Alice Priest is a religious educator with more than 20 years’ experience across a range of settings – from the classroom to youth ministry and teacher education. She has lived and worked in Catholic school systems and ministries in Italy, Germany and Australia. Alice is currently working at Monte Sant’ Angelo Mercy College in Sydney, where she teaches religion and English, and is head of faith formation and liturgy.

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