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When Jesus was baptised in the Bronx River

July 26, 2015

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On Sunday, July 26, I shared the following story with my congregation. I wrote it during a retreat on bioregional theology led by Ched Myers and held at the Maryknoll Mission Institute. Last Sunday we used the sermon reflection time to test our watershed literacy. This week we deepened our biblical literacy by reading closely the story of Jesus’ baptism in Mark 1:4-20.

And we tried to imagine: If Jesus came to our watershed…

  • In what body of water would Jesus be baptized?
  • What prophetic figure from our region plays a role analogous to John?
  • What wilderness would John have come from and would Jesus have gone out to?
  • What local bird, rich with symbolism, would have descended upon Jesus?
  • What flora would have sustained him during his temptation, and what would those temptations have been in this place?
  • Who are the marginal people Jesus would have organized in bringing ‘good news’?
  • Is there a critical moment in our history that Jesus would have interrogated?

Here is how I imagine it might have happened.

This is the story of how Jesus came to the natural community known today as the Bronx River Watershed. Native peoples knew it as the Aquehung River. It was a rich forest area filled with American Chestnuts, home to beaver, bear, and an abundance of fish, shellfish and birds. The river provided home for several Algonquin tribes, known locally as “the people of the shells.” All that remains from this time are mounds of shells.

With the coming of Europeans – Dutch merchants, English Puritans, and French trappers – life around the river changed. First came the farmers who settled here in 1683, drawn by the rich and fertile soil of quaropas – meaning White Plains. But within the first hundred years of colonization, the native people were gone, slaves were imported, two wars were fought, and the river was damned/damed (in both senses of the term). With the coming of the dams, migratory fish disappeared from the upper reaches of the river. During the American War of Independence the valley suffered under the double occupation of both British and patriot alike – with battles fought up and down the length of the river. Native Places like Bear Swamp were renamed after the war’s carnage, Dead Man’s Swamp.

In the second hundred years of colonization, the combination of population growth, urbanization, increasing land shortage on Manhattan Island, and rapid industrialization amidst an ever-uncertain economy, profoundly changed the valley. The river was forced to serve bleach companies, paint companies, textiles and die plants and even weapons manufacture. Despite the growing thirst of New York City, our southern neighbor, the Bronx River was repeatedly passed over as a water source because it was too foul to drink. Hungry poor families, victims of this new economy, fled the city, often seeking refuge around the wealthy towns of the once wild Westchester. Laws were passed to keep them out.

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At this time a strange man appeared, wearing garments made entirely of leather. They were, in fact, hand fashioned from discarded workboots. He lived in the remaining wild places, finding shelter in old caves no doubt known to the First Nations of the valley. He walked continuously a 365 mile route through three watersheds: The Connecticut River, the Bronx River, and the Lower Hudson. It took him 34 days to complete his circular pilgrimage, carrying all he owned, including a French prayerbook, in a leather bag of his own making. He asked for and received hospitality from those he visited. He never spoke a word. But his presence evoked pity and fear, and most importantly, human kindness. So regular were his visits it is said that men could set their watches by his arrival, and women would bake bread in anticipation of his visit. Tables will be set up outside their homes. He always ate outside under the blue sky. No one knew his name, nor would he give it, if asked, so he was simply called “The Old Leatherman.” A man out of time, his presence hearkened back to a simpler time when neighbors took care of one another and welcomed strangers with hospitality.

It was at this time that Jesus came to the valley. He met the Old Leatherman on one of his pilgrimages through the Bronx Watershed. Jesus offered the old man a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine, and in turn Jesus was taken down into the waters of the river. With an oyster shell taken from one of the many memorial piles — Ebenezers, evoking the memory of the first inhabitants of the valley, the Leatherman baptized Jesus into the aquehung.

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Immediately a famished red tailed hawk descended on Jesus and began to pluck at his eyes and pinch flesh from his head. And Jesus realized that the hawk was hungry because the mice and hare and frogs and snakes and, most of all, the fish who belonged to the river were gone.

Immediately, Jesus set out to trace the Leatherman’s path in reverse – working backwards through the history of this region to take account of where errors were made and to ‘unsettle’ the present people.

This Jesus never left the Bronx valley. He never made it to the other valleys, the Connecticut or Hudson. Jesus would have to arrive differently there.

Wading through the river, Jesus became sick through contact with the waters, and he began to understand what had happened to the animals. They had been poisoned by toxins in the water, their habitats destroyed by invasive species. By the time he reached the only remaining old growth forest just above 182nd street bridge, Jesus needed rest, and he sought shelter in one of the Leatherman’s old caves for forty days.

In this barren place, Jesus longed for the company of the animals whose cries continually rose up out of cages and enclosures of the Bronx Zoo, for there were no animals left to attend him by the river. He hungered for the lush fruit trees of all varieties in the manicured and utterly artificial wilds of the NY Botanical Gardens, for there was nothing left but the invasive and bitter mustard root. Mad with thirst, he could not drink the water. It was essentially an open sewer. So he went down to the river to pray.

And Jesus said, “I am living water. Let all who thirst, come to me.” And from that time Jesus entered the river and from that time spoke only as the river. And he began to draw disciples.

He drew scientists from the Bronx Zoo who were embarrassed by the offensive smell coming of the river, and the Wildlife Conservation Society was born.

He drew Italian, German, Jewish, African American, and Latino neighborhoods to work together to reclaim the abandoned vanity projects of the rich as new green spaces and community spaces.

He called William Niles to design the nation’s first parkway to build a buffer between human pollution and the water’s fragile banks.

He drew the legislatures of NYC’s poorest borough and wealthiest suburbs to recognize the shared nature of this river and work together for the good of the whole natural community.

He called children and youth to pick up trash and remove invasive species at the plant new trees.

And he called citizen activists to form the Bronx River Alliance to re-inhabit the watershed through river rambles, canoe trips, local history and watershed literacy projects.

Today, the Jesus who entered into the river has become incarnate in its citizens who listened to his voice.

This is also a resurrection story. Today, the river is healthier than at anytime in the last 300 years. In 2007 a beaver named José returned to the river, the first since the 18th century. And in 2010 he was joined by another beaver named Justin. With the building of a fish ladder at the Roaring Falls, the very site where Jesus entered into the river, alewife herring and eel have returned to the upper river. Now, even the churches are awakening and beginning to work in their watersheds.

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For more information on our local watershed, check out Stephen Paul DeVillo’s brand new The Bronx River in History and Folklore (2015) as well as Maarten de Kadt’s The Bronx River: An Environmental and Social History (2011). I also preached on the watershed last year on River Sunday. By coincidence, Canoe through the Bronx, appeared in this week’s Washington Post. Check it out, please.

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