Guest commentary by Andy James
The electronic signs are everywhere throughout the city: “Major Events in Manhattan September 22-October 2. Expect Delays—Use Mass Transit.” Us New Yorkers are used to the annual United Nations General Assembly, with hundreds of heads of state in town, making midtown Manhattan one gigantic parking lot. Add in the incredibly popular, and at times unpredictable, Pope Francis, and these “major events” are likely to produce an unavoidable traffic jam to be remembered for years to come.
While those of us New Yorkers who have cars and need to use them may be able to adjust our plans, there may be more that is unavoidable about Pope Francis’ visit. Those signs probably need another line about this visit, too: “Expect to Be Challenged.” We may be able to find ways to travel underground and not face delays moving around some parts of the city, but his message may not be so avoidable. Pope Francis manages to be one of the most-liked figures in our society, and the media coverage of his visit seems to be about the only thing that could have ever overtaken Donald Trump from the headlines of these days!
Still, the pope’s words are likely to challenge all of us far beyond creating traffic problems that will be remembered for a generation. This kind of challenge is not the norm for our country or the church in our country. So many of us prefer the challenges we face to be simple, clear-cut decisions where we can easily sort out how we stand. So many of us prefer to know who is for us and who is against us. So many of us prefer a way that allows the opinions that we have to be the only way that matters, regardless of the ways we might try to defend those opinions.
But Pope Francis’ words and actions from the past suggest that he will challenge us to a different way that is less about winning and losing. As he makes his way to New York City, I actually am looking forward to someone challenging me and all of us here to think differently about the assumptions we make. His words and actions force us to ask questions that we have too easily resisted asking, let alone trying to answer: Who matters? What values do we prioritize when we answer that question? How can we who follow Jesus answer that question more like Jesus did and would?
These questions do not have easy answers, nor should they. I hope and pray that the real gift of Pope Francis’ visit will be not the memory of a traffic jam to end all traffic jams, but rather the beginning of a conversation about these very questions. If his words and actions can open more of us to real dialogue that we have been resisting for a generation, then the frustrations of these few days will be more than worth it.
ANDY JAMES is the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone, Queens, New York, and the stated clerk of the Presbytery of New York City. Find and follow him on Twitter and Facebook and at bluedrift.com.