by Donald Schell
Just after my two and a half weeks of driving in Malawi, I was talking with Cleve McIntosh, a South African country doctor who has studied with Richard Rohr at the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Listening to my driving experience reminded Cleve how Richard Rohr says that it may take crises like falling in love or facing serious illness or other grave suffering to create the liminal spaces where godly transformation becomes possible happens. Cleve’s recollection of Rohr’s words made further sense of my experience driving in Malawi and cast my mind back to another surprising experience of crowd behavior and grace in shared consciousness.
May 23, 1987 was a morning of unexpected crisis and danger at home and a time and falling even more deeply in love with two of my children and our good friend. The Golden Gate Bridge Authority had closed the Bridge to cars that Sunday morning, the Bridge’s 50th anniversary, so pedestrians and bicyclists could reenact the 1937 Bridge Walk that first opened the bridge to the public. They estimated 80,000 walkers might show up and had planned porta-potties and Park Ranger supervision accordingly.
At 5:30 a.m. we set out – my seventeen year old daughter, my baby son strapped to my chest in a Snuggli infant carrier, and a very good friend aiming to get to the bridge for the 6 a.m marking the beginning of the anniversary celebration and opening the roadway to pedestrians. Our two middle children didn’t want to go so early, and my wife planned to make breakfast with them to greet us when we got back to head to church.
In the first quarter mile of our walk, we fell in with a joyful crowd converging toward the bridge. We smiled and chatted with strangers and enjoyed an unusually sunny San Francisco as our numbers swelled. I was elated to think we’d get to walk across the Golden Bridge, pedestrians only and no cars allowed again, just as it had been the morning my mother walked with the crowd opening the bridge in 1937. By the time we finally (exultantly) reached the span, people filled the pedestrian walks and the roadway completely.
What we still didn’t know was that almost the very moment we’d set out, those determined to be first across had burst pass the officials readying the beginning of the ceremony and rushed to cross the bridge. In the middle of the bridge the San Francisco crowd and the Marin County crowd met and created an impasse. People continued to come, continued to patiently crowd on to the bridge. None of us had any idea that we were joining a powerful human current with nowhere to go.
When we reached the bridge we walked on and moved forward, but slowly and then more slowly. I wondered how long it would take us to get across. About half an hour in and perhaps a quarter of the way across the bridge we stopped, unable to move at all.
Even at impasse it took some moments to get where we were and what was happening. We were stuck on the bridge. We were suspended two hundred feet above the water. No one could move forward or back. Behind us people who hadn’t yet felt the impasse continued to move slowing on to the bridge.
Someone mentioned sardines in a can. No one responded. The crowd was getting quieter and quieter. For long minutes that felt like hours, we tried to turn around and face back the way we’d come. When someone shouted, “push!” and burst into nervous laughter, several calm and insistent voices, simply said immediately said, “no,” or “just breathe.” And then we found a voice as those and others calmly and quietly said, “pass the word back – no way forward – turn around.” We’d wait and someone would say it again and pass the word back in a hand off of repetition. Nothing else was happening. We worked to stay standing, two feet on the ground. The people right around me who could see the baby helped hold others back.
Afterwards I saw an aerial photo of the bridge bearing us, straining under the weight of our impasse. The bridge, ordinarily a long, gentle arc from land past the towers to its apex in the middle is flat from end to end. A solid mass of humanity ninety-foot wide and a mile and seven tenths long was the heaviest load the bridge had ever born, and well past anything the engineers had ever imagined it would bear. I can point to where we stood still short of the first tower.
Eventually tiny spaces opened up and we could move enough to turn around. Then with more space we began to inch back toward land. And as we moved the spaces to breathe grew. Our immediate chunk of that crowd took two hours to inch our way back to land. The earliest to arrive out at the middle of the bridge were still finding room to breathe and move an hour after us.
With the earth back under our feet (and no cell phones) we hiked back home to comfort a very worried mom and siblings who’d also missed church, first wondering where we were, then watching the news and hoping we and all those other people would be all right.
The news was telling us that the third or so of the crowd of a million people that had actually gotten on to the bridge were the heaviest load the bridge had ever borne. We’d been part of a catastrophic crowd event that somehow didn’t end in anyone’s death. We’d been part of a miracle. There were tense moments and plenty of frightened and foolish thoughts. But the crowd didn’t squeeze anyone over the edge. No one was trampled. No one had a heart attack. But somehow, by the grace of God, the mind of 800,000 people faced fears and didn’t panic, cared for everyone’s safety, and worked together to solve a massive human impasse. 300,000 of us (maybe more) owe our lives to one another.
Driving through crowded villages in Malawi and sensing how we survive by caring for one another, and reflecting on Richard Rohr’s pointer toward meeting God in falling in love or serious crisis, I’m finding something new in that twenty-seven year old memory. Perhaps in those extraordinary moments when “the crowd” doesn’t become a mob, actually finds a way to act in concert, perhaps the miracle we glimpse is the work of God reconciling all, drawing all into communion, something hinting at Gregory of Nyssa’s daring assertion that the Body of Christ is all humanity.
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.