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This Is Not Really About Trains

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that many members of the clergy are also railway enthusiasts.

Before you sigh and click to leave the page – oh no, here comes another trainspotter – I am happy to admit that I have never stood at the end of a platform waiting for a particularly special engine to arrive, although I will admit to visiting the National Railway Museum in York once (and enjoying it).

That’s as far as my enthusiasm goes – unless you count The High Line.

The High Line is a mile-long park in New   York. This imaginative ‘urban greenway’ has walkways, benches, trees. grasses and brilliant views of the city. It started out as a stretch of elevated train track called the West Side Line, part of the New York Central Railroad. It opened in 1934 and was used until 1980.

In the 1990s, the line began to fall into disrepair, although the elevated structure itself was sound. It was going to be demolished until the Friends of the High Line (formed in 1999) began to lobby for its’ preservation and transformation into a public open space. Their dream was for an “aerial greenway” and in 2004, they succeeded in persuading New   York City to commit $50 million to the project.

The first section of the park opened in 2009 and the second in 2011; since then it has attracted thousands, if not millions of visitors and transformed a run down railway line into a thriving community space.

When you walk the High Line, you get a different view of the city. New York is a place where you seem to be constantly looking up because of the narrow streets and lines of skyscapers; on the High Line, you can look up, down, around and across. There is one particularly imaginative section where walkers can sit with their sandwiches and takeaway coffee and look down on the cars passing underneath their seats; as if you are sitting in the middle of the road itself, which is slightly unnerving.

There is no doubt that you get different perspectives on the city when you look from a different angle. As the 50th anniversary of his controversial report on railway cuts was marked recently, I wonder what the infamous Dr Beeching would have made of it?

Seeing life from a different perspective can make all the difference. I remember one of my college tutors suggesting that at regular intervals, those in ministry should find a hill overlooking their village, town or city and climb it; to sit on that hill and pray for those below; to think about the issues facing the area and the people in it; to think about a God’s-eye-view of the situation.

(This is very similar to the reflection “I would like to rise very high, Lord” in Michel Quoist’s classic book ‘Prayers of Life’ )

But what happens when perspectives are so massively different that everyday lives are affected?

Being ‘above’ should not mean ‘looking down on’. Being ‘below’ should not mean ‘forgotten’. Thinking that our perspective is the right one should not mean closing ourselves off to being corrected. Sometimes hearing and seeing a situation from a different perspective can change our views entirely.

I’ve been challenged by the recently Lies About Poverty debate, based on a report published by the Methodist, Baptist and United Reformed Churches, plus the Church of Scotland. (find it at http://www.methodist.org.uk/news-and-events/news-releases/lies-about-poverty-shattering-the-myths)

In this month of controversial changes to the benefit system in the UK, the report has challenged my perceptions of poverty and welfare in this country and has obviously rattled some politicians too.

It needs to be continued to be talked about, in churches, in house groups, in prayer groups. Because examining our own perspectives is important.

We all see life through a particular lens. Our upbringing, our life experiences, our friends, even the paper we choose to read and the news channel we watch all contribute to our particular take on life.

While training as journalist, I was taught that no media outlet is ever impartial. But all too often in conversation it is all too obvious what paper a person has been reading. And sadly there are papers out there who print and broadcast misconceptions and skewed perspectives. And we’re sometimes not as aware of that as we should be.

So here’s a suggestion. Read a different paper for a month. Watch a different news channel. Look for different perspectives on particular stories on the internet. Consider the stance of the media you consume and then think about understanding different ones. Even the BBC is not impartial. But then you knew that – didn’t you?

It’s like reading all four Gospels. None of them are exactly the same. They essentially tell the same story. But they all have different slants and perspectives and are written for different audiences. Do we choose our favourite – or learn from all four?

As we walked the High Line on a crisp Autumn afternoon we got a different view of New York. We had to take a walk to find it but it was worth it. There were surprises along the way but it also helped us see that broken places can be transformed. Beauty and value can be brought to situations previously abandoned. A new perspective can change everything. What about yours?

(This is a guest column written for the Methodist Recorder, Apr 12 edn)

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