From Barriers to Bridges: Leveling Mountains and Valleys

‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’
— Lk 3:4-6

When I first arrived in Ecuador in 2010, I spent most of my time in the rural countryside. There, you can't help but notice the mountains and the valleys.  I felt the continued call - as I had before coming to Ecuador - to invite the mountains to be lowered and the valleys to be filled, so that it would all be plain.  In other words, to invite those who 'have' to share with those who don't, so that each might have the same.  What could be gained from that?  Well, the mountains and the valleys could become friends.  Friendship.  Relationship.  Love.  And all the unimaginable possibilities that come with that. 

It was clear to me that that meant that both mountains and valleys had to value and be open to relationship with each other.  They both had to be open to the happiness that that friendship could possibly bring.  Because both mountains and valleys can be afraid of letting go.  A fearful mountain will never share its things.  A desperate valley will only use others for relief of its fears.  So, mountains had to be *willing* to come down, and valleys had to be *willing* to stop at the plain.  And this seemed to me the biggest challenge both for people from the US and from Ecuador: fear makes everyone dream of being a mountain. The mountains want to stay as mountains.  The valleys want to be mountains.  We can only imagine a reality of mountains and valleys, and the choice is then obvious: move up the mountain. This is the current mindset in the West, and fairness and equality is assumed to be that everyone should have an equal opportunity to climb the mountain.  Not that there shouldn't be mountains and valleys in the first place. The challenge that I felt - and always feel as a disciple of Jesus Christ - is to show everyone the great treasure available to everyone when we become plains.  When we truly are all brothers and sisters in Christ. 

I speak from experience, because that is the story of my life, and I am an example of it. Before I was 30 years old, I had more wealth than 95% of the people in the world - much like most of my friends and acquaintances. I was a mountain. The change that the relationship with Jesus Christ produced in me was to share that wealth and become a plain.  And so, I went from being a barrier to a bridge.  What do I mean by 'barrier' and 'bridge'? That comes from the Scripture passage at the beginning. 

The context of that passage is important.  It refers to a promise of redemption for the Israelites while they were prisoners in Babylon, after the fall of the Kingdom of Israel.  They were taken away to Babylon by way of the great desert that separates that city from Jerusalem. Now, the desert is full of mountains and valleys and rough and winding paths, which would inhibit travel for a large population of people.  But Isaiah is telling the Israelites to prepare a way for God. Why?  Because in the ancient cultures, when a people were captured, their god was captured as well.  The people would be led away captive, and pulling up the rear of the caravan would be their god, usually a large, expensive, heavy idol.  Moving this huge idol is what made traversing the way so difficult, even impossible.  And so, the imagery the prophet is using is for the Israelites to prepare the way in the desert so that God can pass through it, and the people can return with their God to Jerusalem - the city of peace.  If the way is prepared - if the mountains and valleys are leveled, if the roads are made smooth and straight - then God can enter in with His people on the journey home to peace.  The mountains, valleys, roughness and twistedness are all barriers for God to enter, but leveling and smoothing makes the way a bridge for God and His people to return to peace together.  This is the promise at the end of that passage, that "all flesh shall see the salvation of God." 

Later in Luke, John the Baptist translates that passage into practicality.    

Tax collectors are advised not to collect more than what is prescribed.  Soldiers are told not to practice extortion, make false accusations, and to be content with their wages. These are winding roads made straight and rough ways made smooth, respectively.  But before those, Luke has John interpret the leveling of the mountains and valleys for the whole crowd, which is everyone: “Whoever has two tunics should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” (Lk 3:11)  The mountains and valleys refer to sharing possessions, to sharing wealth.  It means that there's an equality of sharing, so that everyone has an equal amount. (As shown in Acts and Paul's letters, this is the way of the church, and it is the basis of community life in religious communities in the Catholic tradition.) 

This sharing to level out is the "good fruits" that are "evidence of your repentance" that John the Baptist is looking for from the very same crowd of people. It is the practical response, the "fruit", of a turning back to the most fundamental realities of being human, of our lives, and seeing things differently - more with God's eyes.  This is repentance. 

And so, the mountains and valleys keep the fracture between God and us, they keep God from entering our community, whether it be family, town, country, or world.  But stepping aside and turning back to the fundamental realities of being human - repentance - restores our sight and stimulates from within us a sharing that levels out the mountains and valleys.  It's then that the way of God is prepared and He can enter. And once God enters, life and love can enter. Jesus can be received, and the family of God - the kingdom of God - begins to become realized. 

Turn back to the basic realities of being human. 

Share, and level the mountains and valleys.  Become a community of true brothers and sisters in God's family. 

That's how each of us, and each of our communities - whether family or group or church or community or nation - can go from being barriers to being bridges. 

That is the mission. 

And so, I have always had a few dreams and ideas I've wanted to develop to invite others into this experience of going from barriers to bridges between the US and Ecuador.  The focus is on the person of Jesus and the Gospel, and also on the practical fruits of sharing - first in small, local community, and then extended to abroad.  Facilitating the grace that God may give for turning from barriers into bridges.  You'll see that mark throughout everything I do. 

But there's one idea I want to share here because it came even more to mind when the latest protests in Ecuador occurred.  It brings out the reality of the mountains and valleys that we participate in every day, what that means to a believer, and what are the possibilities and rewards for leveling mountains and valleys. 

I've long had a desire to introduce two groups of youth, one in Boston and the other in Ecuador.  It could be church groups or school groups or classrooms.  It would be to allow them to introduce themselves to each other and begin a relationship of discovery, as fellow brothers and sisters in God's family.  Eventually, I had hoped to set up visits between the youth, that the youth from Boston could visit Ecuador, and vice versa.  (There was some progress on all this at a few different times between schools.) To do this, the plan would be that each group of youth would do fundraising, each in its own country.   And this is where the real light comes in.  Because it would become obvious to both that the even though they might do the same work in fundraising, the youth in the US would have far more money than the youth in Ecuador - and yet both need to pay the same airfare price for a trip.  There is not equal pay for equal work, as long as prices are global. 

What could be done?  That's where faith - and "repentance" - comes in: an invitation to fill in the valleys and make the mountains low.  Would they be willing to do that? 

One way to do that is pool the money.  It means that they have to join their resources together, like true brothers and sisters, so that each group has the same amount of money to purchase the same amount of plane tickets, for the same amount of work.  And that means that the youth in the US would have to do *more* fundraising work than they originally thought, and those in Ecuador *less* fundraising than they originally thought.  Which turns the light on how folks in the States are paying less than they should for everything at global prices, and those in Ecuador are paying more than they should. Mountains and valleys. 

Here's an example.  Suppose it costs $600 for one airfare between Boston and Quito.  A Bostonian youth and a Quiteño youth (from Quito) spend a week fundraising, and the Bostonian has 5 times more money: $600, to the $120 that the Quiteño has.  The Bostonian has enough to buy himself a ticket, but the Quiteño doesn't. They have done the same work and have very different results - but the price they have to pay for the ticket is the same for each.  And that is the decision point.  Will the Bostonian recognize the injustice?  Is he really a brother?  Will he buy his own ticket and leave the Quiteño behind, or will he find a way for both to visit each other?  So, let's say that they decide to join their efforts together to get two tickets.  They would need $1200 altogether, and so far have $720 between them.  They continue fundraising another 4 days, and the Bostonian still has 5 times more money: $1000, to the $200 that the Quiteño has.  Now, put together, there is enough money to buy both tickets.  They have both done the same amount of work, and both have a ticket.  That is just and fair.  Notice that the just and fair price for the Bostonian is $1000, which is much higher than the global price of $600.  Likewise, the just and fair price for the Quiteño is $200, much lower! 

This activity begins to turn the light on the injustice in the whole of the economic system that shapes all of the daily living in our society in the US, that it is *contrary to being brothers and sisters in God's family.* It turns Christian people away from being brothers and sisters, and this is the mission of Jesus.   It essentially grows the mountains and valleys, especially among fellow Christians, and keeps God from entering, and so it is a source of all the social problems that so many people complain about, especially Christians.  How many instances are there of Catholics and other Christians (in the US and anywhere else) fully imbued in the economic system day in and day out, while complaining about the immoral conditions of a society without God! They ought to look in the mirror to find the barriers.  The effort of Barriers to Bridges offers the very message of "repentance" brought by John the Baptist to be able to receive the gift of salvation - solution to all our problems, even death - that God wants to give when He is allowed in. When mountains and valleys are leveled. 

And now back to the recent protests in Ecuador, where the IMF essentially wants global prices for fuel in countries like Ecuador, which has much lower wages than countries like the US. The people, led by the indigenous peoples, rejected the IMF deal by resisting the removal of fuel subsidies throughout the country.  Yet there needs to be subsidies on global products and prices, not as a matter of giving someone something free, but as a matter of not overcharging people while effectively undercharging those who are from countries where pay is much higher.  It's about leveling mountains and valleys.  And the reward mentioned by Isaiah is for us, too: seeing the salvation of God. 

Seeing what He can do with our problems when His people let go of financial fears and individual self-seeking and try to treat each other as true brothers and sisters in His family.

“The contribution of the Church and of evangelization to the development of peoples concerns not only the struggle against material poverty and underdevelopment in the South of the world, but also concerns the North, which is prone to a moral and spiritual poverty caused by "overdevelopment."112 A certain way of thinking, uninfluenced by a religious outlook and widespread in some parts of today's world, is based on the idea that increasing wealth and the promotion of economic and technical growth is enough for people to develop on the human level. But a soulless development cannot suffice for human beings, and an excess of affluence is as harmful as excessive poverty. This is a "development model" which the North has constructed and is now spreading to the South, where a sense of religion as well as human values are in danger of being overwhelmed by a wave of consumerism.

Fight hunger by changing your lifestyle" is a motto which has appeared in Church circles and which shows the people of the rich nations how to become brothers and sisters of the poor. We need to turn to a more austere way of life which will favor a new model of development that gives attention to ethical and religious values. To the poor, missionary activity brings light and an impulse toward true development, while a new evangelization ought to create among the wealthy a realization that the time has arrived for them to become true brothers and sisters of the poor through the conversion of all to an "integral development" open to the Absolute.”

Mission of the Redeemer (59), John Paul II, 1990


“I sincerely hope for growth in awareness and true repentance on the part of us all, men and women of the 21st century, believers or not, and on the part of our societies, for allowing ourselves to be carried away by logics that divide, create hunger, isolate and condemn. It would be good to ask the poor the excluded for forgiveness. Then we could repent sincerely, including for the harm done to the earth, the sea, the air, the animals . . .”
— From Our Mother Earth, Pope Francis, 2019 (excerpt from Zenit news agency: