Take a hike: ‘Asphalt Jesus’ takes progressive Christianity on the road
As followers of Christ, often we find it far too intimidating or difficult to go across the street to share our faith with another person, let alone take a 2,500 mile walk. That’s what a group of people from Arizona did last year.
Their journey began on Easter Sunday in 2006 and is chronicled in a new book called Asphalt Jesus: Finding a New Christian Faith Along the Highways of America by Eric Elnes, who came up with the idea to walk from Arizona to Washington, D.C. to share a different, more progressive side of Christianity that often gets short shrift (if any mention at all) in the media. Elnes is the pastor of Scottsdale Congregational United Church of Christ in Scottsdale, Arizona and a co-founder of CrossWalk America – the organization that was birthed from the walk.
The walkers were accompanied by a film crew and the result is a movie called “The Asphalt Gospel” that is playing around the country.
In a recent interview with Whosoever, Elnes said he resisted God’s call to do the walk claiming he was “not much of a walker,” but after winning the support of his congregation, the idea turned into reality.
“One member of my church summed it up best when she said in exasperation, ‘I’m tired of being a Christian butt.’ I thought she literally meant ‘butt,’ so I asked about this and she said, ‘No, I’m tired of apologizing for being a Christian saying, ‘I’m a Christian, but, I love people of other faiths. I’m a Christian but, I love GLBT people. I’m a Christian, but I believe in separation of church and state,'” Elnes said.
The beliefs of the walkers were spelled out clearly in The Phoenix Affirmations written by Elnes in the years before the walk. The progressive Christian manifesto is based on what Elnes calls, “Christ’s three loves,” love of God, love of self and love of neighbor. The affirmations make some controversial claims including loving and accepting those who profess allegiance to other religions along with the full acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people within church and society.
While not all the affirmations resonated with those they met on the road, the walkers discovered plenty of other “Christian buts,” and they were in the strangest places, like churches that considered themselves very conservative.
In Eagar, Arizona, for instance, the walkers visited Jesus First Baptist Church. They introduced themselves at Bible study and during the worship service and while most in the congregation did not agree with some of the beliefs of the walkers, including their penchant for including gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in God’s realm, they found an amazing sense of welcome.
“It’s like this magic happened,” Elnes said. “Rather than rejecting us the congregation ended up embracing us. They saw we were walking for Jesus and that’s what mattered most to them. They didn’t come around to our point of view but it was a magical moment that suggested to us that it’s possible to find common ground, it’s possible to listen to one another, it’s possible to look into each other’s eyes knowing you disagree strongly and find people’s humanity. If we can do that we have what it takes to work through these difficult issues.”
In the end, the church took up a collection for them and blessed their efforts as they continued their walk.
It would not be the last time that the walkers would find embrace in the strangest places. In Hereford, Texas, the Fellowship of Believers welcomed the walkers even though the congregation had serious disagreements with CrossWalk America’s beliefs. The pastor later told Elnes they had supporters in her congregation because “you didn’t come with your guns out. You came with the desire to make some new friends. And that’s how change is going to happen in this country.” (p. 82)
“I Hate Christians”
While the walkers may not have had their guns blazing, some of those they met certainly did, including Jason, a gay man they met in Columbia, Missouri. When he met the walkers he told them, “Don’t take this personally, but I hate Christians.”
Eric and fellow walker Rebecca Glenn didn’t take offense. Eric told him, “If we weren’t angry over certain things Christians are standing for these days, we would never have taken a step out of Phoenix.”
That, and a trip to a local pub, helped Jason open up to the walkers and tell his story. Raised as a Catholic, Jason never really connected to Christianity, finding his spirituality in science and nature instead. What made Jason angry, however, were so-called Christians like Fred Phelps and his family who picket gay pride marches, churches and lately funerals of soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“What made him angrier though were those Christians who let it happen without raising an alternate voice,” said Elnes. “If people were holding up signs that said, ‘Cancer is God’s answer to smoking,’ or ‘Diabetes is God’s answer to obesity,’ everyone would be in an uproar, but they can hold up signs with ‘AIDS is God’s answer to homosexuality’ and people are silent.”
Only when Phelps and his family began picketing military funerals did the Christian community begin to protest his appearances and seek to pass laws against such displays. Jason rightly asked “where were Christians before then?”
Given the silence and perceived hypocrisy of Christians in his experience, Jason asked Elnes, “How can you Christians expect me to give my life to a faith that won’t give its life to me?”
An excellent question asked by many GLBT people of faith and one that Elnes and the walkers had no answer for – all they could say was, “I’m sorry.” The walkers have kept in touch with Jason who later told them, “I don’t share your faith, but I think we may share the same God.”
Was Jesus on Crack?
It was that same God that the walkers continued to encounter whether they were welcomed or rejected along the road. It was not, however, their stand on homosexuality that caused the most consternation among more conservative believers – it was Affirmation 9 that affirms that “all people are loved beyond our wildest imagination – for eternity.” Elnes said many that they met found it intimidating that God could love all people for eternity, not just those who professed a faith in Christ.
Elnes said what those who cannot accept that affirmation feel is fear – fear that they’ll be cast into an eternal hell if they don’t come to God through Christ.
“We’ve been taught from an early age that there is this place called hell. I personally believe there is a state of separation from God, but an eternity of being tortured takes it way beyond the biblical evidence and the evidence from the rest of our faith tradition. If you remove that fear that God will throw you into that place you take away 90% the power of this extreme fundamentalism,” he said.
In fact, Elnes is clear about Jesus’ mission on earth when he writes, “If you happen to think Jesus is of no use at all unless he keeps you from frying in hell, then I invite you to reconsider your love and respect for Jesus.” Instead of saving us from eternal damnation, Elnes writes that Jesus saves us, “for living in this world as people who trust that God loves us and all people for eternity.” (p. 35)
“Jesus was here to open our eyes and ears to the fact that the realm of God is here in our midst right now. When he’s baptized by John in Mark he says the kingdom of God is here and to repent,” Elnes said. “The people listening to him would have thought it was crazy. They had the Romans over them, they were dirt poor. Life was pretty hard and to suggest that God’s realm was available right now – I’m sure if crack was available in those days they would have thought Jesus was a crack addict. But, that was the amazing message of Jesus.”
When Jesus’ message is viewed in that light, it changes everything about the notion of salvation, Elnes said.
“Most people think that when he’s talking about salvation he’s talking about an afterlife, yet when you go through the gospels and when he talks about salvation he’s talking about this life stuff most of the time – reconciliation within a community, a fragmented spirit being made whole, the poor being fed, physical healing and so forth. His emphasis was on this world realities and finding God and God’s realm in the present and living in the joy and abundance of that realm. Yet we push him off to the end times and the afterlife – that way we can focus our attention away from our everyday lives. Jesus becomes this ticket into heaven and we can do whatever we want on earth. The fact of the matter is he’s not a ticket to heaven but he reveals a heaven that’s already in our midst.”
Taking Risks with God’s Love
That heaven in our midst calls us to take risks with God’s love.
“I firmly believe that if God is going to point out the mistakes I made in this life it’s not going to be, ‘Eric, you were too loving. You gave away too much grace.’ Rather it’s the opposite, we tend to withhold grace, to try to reign in love and not let it out too much, not be too risky with it. It’s riskier actually not to take risks with love and grace and to keep it in,” he said.
Eric and the other walkers took many risks as they walked from Arizona to Washington, D.C. reaching out to those who may not agree with their beliefs. What they found was a great thirst and openness to their ideas, meeting many people who are what Bishop Jack Spong calls “The Church Alumni Association.”
“They are all over the place, no matter how small the town or how conservative the area we could always find supporters – even if the churches did not support us – there were locals who came out of the woodwork when they found out what we were about,” Elnes said.
For example, a woman at Jesus First Baptist thanked them for taking a stand on the hard issues like homosexuality. She revealed that her son had come out and her husband had disowned him. Her son had little choice but to leave town.
“She couldn’t believe that God would create people that way and then condemn them,” Elnes said.
She said she hoped the walker’s message of inclusion prevails because it would embolden people like her who are afraid to speak out.
She told Elnes, “Maybe we could get our voices together and make a change.”
Now, that’s a message worthy of a 2,500 mile walk.
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.