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By Gregory Anderson Love
On this one day, ten years ago, all the bad news in his life came to a moment. He stood on the railing’s edge of the bridge, and looked down.
Kevin Berthia had never even been to the Golden Gate Bridge; he had to ask for directions. His daughter had been born premature the year before, and medical costs for her care had climbed to $250,000. He could not see a way out of debt. He had fallen into a deep depression, and decided to end his life.
That was the day he met CHP officer Kevin Briggs, and his life changed.
“I was overwhelmed with everything. Everything I was ever bothered by came together on that one day,” Kevin said on last Friday’s StoryCorps. “I felt like a failure. I was embarrassed that I got into this situation.”
They talked for 92 minutes. “The compassion in your voice is what allowed me to let my guard down enough to have a conversation,” Kevin said Friday to Officer Kevin Briggs. Kevin Briggs did not shame Kevin. Instead, he listened, and then talked about how he had been through similar situations. He talked about his own depression, how he had kept it bottled up for decades. He talked about his own vulnerability to the human situation.
Kevin got off the side of the bridge, which 92 minutes earlier had seemed the solution of release from all of the pain in his life, and he got on with his life.
For eight years, he did not think about that day on the bridge. But two years ago, when Kevin’s mother wrote to Kevin Briggs, the two Kevins reunited as old friends who had not seen each other in a long time. They have been friends for two years.
On Friday, Kevin said to Kevin Briggs, “My daughter is ten. Had you not been there, I would never have gotten to see her grow up…I don’t trust a lot of people. But you never judged me. And now, we have that trust, and that keeps us afloat, with a relationship that is different from any other friendship.”
In her book Short Stories By Jesus, Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine castigates the often anti-Semitic interpretation of the parables Jesus told. But on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, she says that Jesus and his Jewish listeners and the author Luke all landed on the same point. In a situation in which he probably feared he too might be robbed as had this poor man in the ditch, the Samaritan took a risk, and made himself vulnerable. To this dying man’s fate. To his own vulnerabilities inside of himself. By having deep compassion for the wounds and life of a human being who, despite all the differences, was like him (Luke 10:33), he became vulnerable. Just as Kevin Briggs became vulnerable when he had compassion for Kevin Berthia on the bridge.
We are not all that different. We all have stories that, if we heard them from one another, would make us weep. “The other is like me,” if we truly see the other with the eyes of compassion.
As humans, as Christians, as pastors, it is our willingness to be vulnerable with others for the sake of compassion that changes this world toward the new creation.
It helps us see others. It binds us to them. It makes relations of trust possible, as Kevin said he experienced, and as no doubt the wounded man felt toward the Samaritan who helped him. Like a fulcrum that turns worlds, that relation of trust heals, and changes, everything, as it did for the man in the ditch, and for Kevin on the bridge.
Gregory Anderson Love is a Presbyterian minister who teaches systematic theology at San Francisco Theological Seminary. His most recent book, on the meaning of Jesus’s death, is Love, Violence, and the Cross: How the Nonviolent God Saves Us through the Cross of Christ.