From Towpath to Toepath

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July 22, 2012

It was a sweet surprise.  Always seeking discovery and adventure, I delight in finding places to run that are off the beaten path but are also safe.  I left the hotel early Wednesday morning last week in Akron, Ohio with no destination in mind but soon stumbled upon the Ohio Erie Canal Towpath Trail.

In the early 1800’s Ohio was a struggling frontier with few passable roads and great difficulty getting crops to market.  In order to reach water transportation on the Great Lakes, the 308 mile Ohio Erie Canal was built between 1825 and 1832, linking Cleveland on Lake Erie with Portsmouth on the Ohio River.

4,000 German and Irish immigrants working at any one time built 40 foot wide and 4 foot deep trenches lined with sandstone.  Putting in long hours and digging entirely by hand, the workers received 30 cents a day.  The Ohio Erie Canal opened up a new world to this sparsely populated wilderness.  From 1827 to 1913 this canal provided access to world markets and enabled Ohio to become the third most populous and one of the richest states in the union.

Despite the challenge of flooding and freezing, people and freight traveled up and down the Ohio Erie Canal, with businesses and stores springing up along the route.  Because of the canal the cost of shipping goods from the East Coast to Ohio declined from $125 per ton of goods to $25 per ton.  By 1860 Ohio led the nation in agricultural output, and real estate values rose 1400% in 37 counties.

What intrigued me more than the canal was the towpath on which I was running.  A towpath is a road or trail on the bank of a rivercanal, or other inland waterway.  The purpose of a towpath was to allow mules or horses, human pullers, or a land vehicle to tow a boat/barge when sailing was impractical because of tunnels, bridges, unfavorable winds, or unsuitable rivers.  I tried to imagine what it would have been like to pay $1.70 to sit on a boat and be pulled by horses from Cleveland to Portsmouth for 70 hours at an average speed of 4 miles an hour!

With the advent of railroads and engines fitted on boats in the 1870’s, the need for and cost efficiency of canal transportation diminished.  Although more expensive for travelers, railroads took less time and were not dependent on water.  The Ohio Erie Canal still operated, however, until the flood of 1913 dumped 12 inches of rain over 4 days, leaving the canal virtually destroyed and eventually abandoned.

In the 1960’s a vision of reusing the overgrown Towpath Trail took shape.  20 years later the newly formed Ohio and Erie Canalway Coalition facilitated the transformation of the old towpath into a multi-use toepath for walkers, runners, and cyclists.  Today the 108 mile Ohio Erie Towpath Trail is used by 2.5 million people a year who have no intention of being towed but rather want to use their toes to be outside, enjoy nature, and exercise.

It’s no coincidence that the North Central Jurisdictional Conference of The United Methodist was held last week in Akron, Ohio, which is right in the middle of the Ohio Erie Canal Towpath Trail.  Akron is called the “City of Invention” and is home to the National Inventors Hall of Fame.  Akron is also known as the “Rubber City” and for the invention of the first synthetic rubber tire in 1940.  In addition, Akron is home to:

  • The first breakfast cereal, now known as Quaker Oats
  • Alcoholics Anonymous, founded by Dr. Bob Smith and Bill W. Wilson in 1935
  • The All-American Soapbox Derby (its 75th anniversary was last week)
  • The site of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” 1851 speech on freedom from slavery
  • The birthplace of the trucking industry
  • The “Akron Plan” architectural style for churches
  • America’s first toy company, S.C. Dyke Company, manufacturer of marbles

From towpath to toepath has been Akron’s history, as the city has continually taken the initiative to transform itself, knowing that no one is going to “tow them” into the future.  Most recently, the city of Akron has lost 20,000 jobs in the last 10 years and is in the process of reinventing itself to be a world-renowned center for polymer research and development. 

The location of the North Central Jurisdictional Conference in Akron was providential because we, too, are at a turning point in The United Methodist Church.  The blessing of not having episcopal elections was the gift of time.  On Wednesday night Black Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR) asked delegation chairs to participate in a panel discussion and offer reflections on 3 areas:

  • Responsive governance and the creation of structures that are well aligned with our vision, mission, and current realities
  • Creative tensions between domestic diversity and the dynamics of a growing global church
  • Leadership and leadership development needs arising from situational imperatives of our local churches, conferences, and communities

Sensing an urgency to reinvent our systems, structure, and will to complement our mission, theological heritage, and core values, delegates to The North Central Jurisdiction passed a motion last Friday to establish a task force of 2 persons (lay and clergy) from each annual conference which will use an online platform to:

  1. Examine with a zero-based approach the structure of the jurisdictional conference
  2. Place the conclusions in the context of other discussions of changes within The UMC
  3. Provide updates to annual conferences beginning in 2014
  4. Make recommendations to annual conferences for the 2016 General Conference

I pray that our denomination will finally begin to travel on a toepath, not a towpathOnce we acknowledge that General Conference is not a towpath that will save us and begin to walk the toepath ourselves, we are moving in the right direction.

Once we admit that we are all responsible to reverse our decline as a denomination, then we can begin (in the spirit of Alcoholics Anonymous, which started in Akron) to walk the toepath by planning for growth and vitality in the context of a diverse church.

Once our local churches and clergy stop asking the district and conference to bail them out and focus instead on creating ministries that will engage their communities, develop cultural competence, and make disciples, thus bringing new life to their congregations, we begin to walk the toepath.

Once we learn how to be a global church where no one has to or should tow anyone else, then we honor geographical, cultural, and ethnic diversity and walk the toepath together.

Once we invite others to join us on the toepath rather than drag, pressure, force, or tow them, we discover that we are all sojourners on the same journey toward the God’s kingdom of shalom.

Once we boldly claim that we are not helpless but that the Holy Spirit gives us the power to network, collaborate, consult, and cooperate rather than compete or confuse, then we begin to walk the toepath together.

Moving from towpath to toepath is the way forward; it’s the key to our rebirth.  The North Central Jurisdiction found the toepath in Akron, and we have chosen to walk it together with great optimism.

Who knows what will happen on the toepath if we choose to walk it as individuals, churches, conferences, jurisdictions, and a denomination?  Perhaps we will meet strangers along the way, and our eyes will be opened.  Perhaps we will experience grace, and our hearts will burn within us.  Perhaps we will engage in deep conversation, and transformation will begin to nudge us forward.  Perhaps we will turn a corner and discover hope staring us in the face.  Perhaps the wind will mess with our dryness, and we will catch on fire.

Who knows what sweet surprise might happen when the towpath turns into a toepath?



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