What do you do with a bridge when the river moves and it is no longer effective?
A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a photo of a bridge in Honduras. The bridge spanned the Choluteca River. The new Choluteca Bridge, also known as the Bridge of Rising Sun, was built by Hazama Ando Corporation between 1996 to 1998 and became the largest bridge constructed by a Japanese company in Latin America. This bridge, which was a gift from Japan to the people of Honduras, was constructed of concrete and steel using modern engineering and construction. It was built to last, and a lot of money was invested in the project.
In late October 1998, the same year the bridge was completed and commissioned for use, Hurricane Mitch struck Central America leaving more than 11,000 people dead, destroying hundreds of thousands of homes and causing more than $5 billion in damages. It was the deadliest hurricane to hit the Western Hemisphere in more than 200 years.
Hurricane Mitch began as a tropical depression on October 22, and by October 26 had intensified into a Category 5 hurricane. Sustained winds reached 180 mph, while gusts were more than 200 mph. After making landfall in Honduras on October 29, Hurricane Mitch moved through Central America before reaching Florida as a tropical storm on November 4th, 1998.
Mitch was an especially destructive storm; it slammed into the country of Honduras and ended up dumping over six feet of rain in less than four days. Honduras and Nicaragua were especially hard hit by the hurricane. In Honduras, floods and mudslides brought on by heavy rainfall washed away entire villages, and the majority of the country’s crops and infrastructure were destroyed. The other Central American nations were also affected by Hurricane Mitch, although the death tolls in these locations were significantly lower than Honduras and Nicaragua.
In total, more than 11,000 people (some estimates put the figure as high as 18,000) died because of the hurricane, making Mitch the most deadly storm in the Western Hemisphere since the Great Hurricane of 1780 in the Eastern Caribbean. Additionally, several million people were made homeless or severely impacted by Hurricane Mitch, which is estimated to have caused more than $5 billion in damages.
The Bridge of the Rising Sun spanning the Choluteca managed to survive the devastating destruction of Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and the more than six feet of water that it dumped on Honduras as it camped out and intensified over them for several days.
However, the tragic results lie not in the construction of the bridge but in the nature of rivers. Rivers move. Alas, after a deluge of rain and flooding, the river jumped its banks and carved a new channel in which to flow through.
Rivers move… bridges do not.
This is especially true of ones built with steel and concrete. In the process, the flood washed away the roads and ramps that connected to the bridge making the once functional bridge into a bridge to nowhere. This edifice of sound engineering found itself no longer over the river. It could no longer serve its original purpose.
What do you do when the river moves?
This story can be used as an illustration for the church today. It is almost like a modern day parable with relevance to our current situation. For many of us… christians, pastors, and churches the river has moved.
As is the case with any successful institution, the church was built with the best social and religious engineering available at the time: as a robust and hardy structure designed to be effective and to last. A lot of time, energy, sweat, and money has been previously invested. In fact, there has been generations of investment, and it has served as a bridge for many to move from death to life. Our design, methods, and ideas have spanned the river… when the river was in the right place.
But… unfortunately society has changed. The result is that what used to be true has jumped the old banks where the church had constructed itself. And now, the church is left with a well-built bridge: a bridge of pews, brick and stone and stained glass; a bridge of doctrine, dress code, residential schools, prayer books, organ music, etc.
And the river is no longer where it should be.
None of our previous methods, techniques, and bridges of the past are bad… they just are no longer spanning the river. Our bridges are ineffective structures. They may be nice to look at, we might have fond memories of how they used to work, but ultimately they are no longer serving the purpose of which they were once intended. This brings up options for how to respond to this new situation.
Can we dredge the river back in place? Can we find enough excavators to dig the river back into its rightful channel? How do we move a river? Maybe it will find its way back under our bridge if we are patient? Or do we find another way?
Might we accept the reality and power of the river? It has moved and it isn’t coming back.
Do we begin to reconsider a new bridge? Can we creatively consider spanning the river with lighter and flexible materials: materials able to be adjusted to moving rivers and changing circumstances?
What do we do when the river starts to move?