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Father Walter Wagner

Street Seens: Good News About a Wall


Something amazing happened in our urban village in the week just ended.  There was good news about a wall. 

With his permission, I quote one insight that formed the centerpiece for Street Seens’ neighbor Father Walter Wagner in a December 3 pastoral letter marking the start of a season called Advent. Defining it as a time of looking towards a future viewed through what he names “a lens of promise.” He wrote: 

I always think that the Berlin Wall 
 offers the best image for Advent, 
inevitability toppled.

So, what does that mean? It means that one of our residents wrote a letter to his parishioners, his neighbors and ours in this urban village, urging us to take hope in a season of despair, from the image of the Berlin Wall. He reminded us that a bastion of weaponized power could not stand. It was doomed to fall because it was built to divide. A tidal wave of resolute hope totally undermined that weak foundation. Hope triumphed because it will always be more powerful than its opposite.  

A new order emerged as a bud, because good people of good will dared to believe in one another. They coaxed growth toward the light and the sun, by sharing a network of aspirations. Their concerted belief that the past is not destiny. These are the people who chose to carve in granite on their country’s National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. that the past is, in fact, not the inevitable destiny of a troubled past, but rather that the past is prologue. That sort of courageous conviction lends the people who share it, a unity that is never held hostage by their deep difference about how they see the details of those aspirations. 

Some read the letter in the context of their faith. But a wider network of readers will hear in it the echoes of other spokespersons of hope. The “better angels” named by Abraham Lincoln could easily have been seen as factors in the collapse of that wall that went up in a later time. So might the direct words of an Illinois-born President named Reagan who stood at that wall and made it impossible to deny that human beings who built it and their leaders who thought it was a good idea could also grow in awareness and see that not all ideas are created equal. Anyone practical enough to see that the scalpel is probably a better tool for healers than a sledge hammer. (Allow me a diversion from our conversation to recall hearing a conversation among members of the free press to note that President Reagan allowed an advisor to help him capture and express “the elegance of the U.S. Presidency.” They credited the genius of Michael Deaver and the openness and basic goodness of Reagan as the ingredients for that achievement.) 

They listened to the promises of brave messengers who recognized that the path to new life is not alone through partisanship and profitability.  

A wise and gifted couple who lived in our parish made certain to include a visit to the Berlin Wall in a family trip when their children were young. The mother-turned-tour-director asked their driver to take them to the “most expensive” hotel in East Berlin. Her strategy was to see how the people lived who thought it was a good idea to build the wall (the couple had no intention of treating the children to a white tablecloth lunch there, but instead headed for whatever passed for its coffee shop.) Having seen the pricey elegance of that neighborhood they then directed the driver to take them to the wall and so allow them to see how “the others” lived in East Berlin. Not long afterward when the wall was destroyed they were happy that an indelible image of its starker realities would remain in their family’s minds and hearts.

Listening to a tourism commercial this week for travel to Israel and a visit to Hebron where Abraham and Sara are buried, it would have been hard to miss the message.He who is considered the Patriarch of all people of varied faiths who share a common belief in a single God, had built no wall to protect against the visitors who came to tell them literally unbelievable good news. They welcomed the visitors and offered them hospitality and, best of all, shared conversation and the promise that a new day could dawn lighted by the millions of stars in a night sky.  

Borrowing the final words of Father Wagner’s letter, I extend his message, saying, “May the magic of the season help us to remember where we haven’t yet been.”

Photos by Debra Toppeta