I can clearly remember hearing the breaking news alert sound coming from the TV. I looked up to see what was so important to break into the 6pm newscast and disrupt their other stories. What I saw left me wondering if I was dreaming. It was August 1, 2007 and the I-35W bridge leading into downtown Minneapolis had just collapsed and fallen into the Mississippi River during rush hour. It was one of the most surreal scenes that was playing out in front of me. "What in the world? How does a major freeway bridge just collapse?" I thought to myself. I heard the helicopters overhead, rushing to the scene and wondered how many victims their were.
In the days to come, the scene continued to unfold. Questions would be raised about inspections, numbers of those still missing would be reported, and divers were shown searching the murky river waters to recover victims. Eventually, they came to the conclusion that thirteen people had been killed in this tragedy. Their pictures and stories greeted me from every newscast, but one stood out.
A week after the collapse, the bodies of Sadiya Sahal (23) and her daughter Hanah (22 mo.) were pulled from the river. They were stuck in traffic on their way to pick up a friend from work when the bridge fell. The news would tell of Sadiya's immigration from Somalia to the United States, how she was training to be a nurse, and the many ways she had served her community. They would mention that she was 5 months pregnant and tell of the husband she left behind. And yet, when I saw that picture, the first thing I noticed wasn't the sparkle in Hanah's eyes or her adorable smile. It wasn't the youth of Sadiya. The fist thing I noticed was her hijab and I immediately found myself wondering if they were burning in hell.
It was at that moment that I realized just how destructive Evangelical Culture had been to my thinking and how very unlike the gospel of Jesus it was. Its obsession with classifying the state of salvation for those around us and judging the true status of their hearts risked leaving its adherents unable to mourn with those who mourn or see the true beauty of those around them. At a time when my heart should have been breaking on behalf of a man who had lost his entire family in mere seconds, I was preoccupied with determining their eternal destination. As I realized that, I realized that this was not the faith and compassion exemplified by Jesus. I didn't know what it was, but I didn't want to be held hostage to its destructive ways of thinking any longer.
Any worry I had that this manner of thinking hadn't come from the Evangelical Culture I had been immersed in for years was put to rest as the most prominent Evangelical pastor in the area published an opinion of the bridge collapse only a few hours after it occurred defining its intent as God's way of reminding us that he is in control and we have to trust him. Yet at the end, this pastor says he is weeping with those who weep. I'm sorry, but that is simply not the case. To insert your own explanation into a tragedy while those in the midst of it are still in shock and mourning isn't weeping along with them. It is engaging in the self-righteous behavior of Job's friends who demanded to find reason for his suffering rather than see him through it. To make its meaning about you and your theology is inherently selfish and lacking in compassion.
That is what I had realized about myself in that moment. My pondering about the salvation of the victims demonstrated that my own faith had become selfish and lacking in compassion. I demanded to know how this could possibly fit into my own theology rather than consider those whose worlds had been shattered forever, those who would never hold their loved ones again. I examined the state of this type of faith and found little in it that exemplified the life of Jesus and his teachings. Yet I knew, that in the midst of the culture I was about to leave behind, such pondering would be not only entertained but deemed beneficial.
I realized the contrast of these thoughts with the leaders of the Muslim community who were quoted following Sadiya and Hanah's funeral. Quotes from two imams stood out to me:
"When the bridge collapsed, it did not ask for anybody's nationality. It did not ask if anybody was an immigrant. I hope that we live together as a community regardless of where we are from, regardless of our social status. That would be the best legacy."
"We're one body. If part of that body would be aching, the whole body would be aching,"
How is it that the words of these Muslim leaders are more reflective of the spirit of Jesus than the words and behaviors of many Christians surrounding this event? That they were more reflective of Jesus than my own thoughts, words, and behaviors? Something seemed to be seriously wrong with the way that Evangelical Culture taught me how to be a Christian. The obsessive focus on salvation was leaving me devoid of compassion. At that moment I knew this was a toxic faith and that I had to find a better way.