What I’ve learned about being a bridge vs being a wall from Yusuf/Cat Stevens

This past Sunday on CBS Sunday Morning there was a profile of the musician Yusuf/Cat Stevens.

While a long time fan of his music, his beliefs and “politics” were a bit more puzzling to me. But after watching this recent profile and hearing about his describing himself as a bridge, I realized he still has a lot to teach me.

When someone confronts us about deeply held beliefs: religious, political or otherwise, we have a choice. We can be a bridge or we can be a wall. For many years after converting to Islam and changing his name to Yusuf Islam, Yusuf/Cat was a wall. He rejected everything of his past music career despite the advice of an imam to continue to do it only without all the trappings of the “rock and roll lifestyle.” He quickly became a pariah to many former fans of his music. While he had the opportunity of a lifetime to enlighten people, instead, he became a wall that blocked many fans from understanding the radical life change he had undergone.

I realized how often defensive posturing on my or anyone’s part when someone challenges us on religious doctrine or history or tradition comes off as being a wall. It breaks down any and/or all communication. The person asking us questions, no matter how confrontational they are being asked or how inflammatory or wrong their statements may be, is going to close their mind off and shut down and nothing is gained on either side. However, we have the opportunity to enlighten and educate, if we determine ourselves to be a bridge.

And this extends to all areas of our lives. I can think in my own life about autism. I can educate and promote acceptance. Or I can be ugly and reactive and make people withdraw even further from me and my child and form wrong-headed opinions about autism, my child’s abilities and myself.

God calls all of us to be bridges, not walls. He calls all of us to bring others to our faith and to teach others. Sometimes it takes a painful period of being a wall for us to realize that we are not going to win any friends or converts that way. As I watched Yusuf/Cat Stevens perform in the piece, I realized there are people in that audience who rejected him in the 80s when he made statements regarding the fatwa issued for Salman Rushdie, who may have turned their records in to be steam-rolled as happened at that time. There also may have been people in that audience who as Muslims may have previously rejected the music of Cat Stevens. He was a bridge for both sets of people. And I realized I have a lot of work to do before I can be an effective bridge for Jesus, for autism, for the rights of those who cannot speak for themselves (the disabled, the unborn, the marginalized).

I realized that for many people of many faiths, Pope Francis is the bridge into Catholicism they never found in a neighbor, local parish, family member, priest or other attachment. And he is trying to encourage his flock to be bridges. Not to abandon doctrine. Not to change church teaching but to reach out, to build the bridges that will reunite Christians and all peoples.

We can all learn from these people seeking to be bridges in our midst and seek to become bridges ourselves.