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Jill and I spent the second half of the summer preparing for our own version of “semester at sea.” We purchased a used 27-foot Ranger Tug and began preparing for the Great American Loop. We downsized to bare essentials for sleeping and living spaces of 18 and 84 square feet, respectively. Before we left Port Sheldon, Michigan in late September on our 6,500-mile journey through the waterways of the eastern United States, there was much to learn. Despite a post-covid spike in participation, it is a small group that embarks on this trip, with fewer people (called loopers) who complete this journey each year than climb Mount Everest. Prior to this trip, we were experienced weekend-boaters, but nothing more. The Great Loop is a very different kind of boating and we had to study how to actually do the loop. We needed elementary tutorials on almost everything: locks, bridges, river currents, ocean tides, overnight anchoring, navigating rough inlets, communicating with tow captains, marine electronics, safety, and on and on. Fortunately, there are many resources in print, digital, and video format to assist aspiring loopers. After listening to a series of gloomy podcasts on rough water, hurricane preparation, on-board fires, and proper procedure for May Day radio calls, I decided to listen to a less stressful podcast that described the history of one of the bridges on the loop. In my learning, I found interesting parallels between the bridge’s history and the recent unity struggles of the RCA and CRCNA, about which much has been written in Reformed Journal.

The bridge is located at Mile Marker 300.5 on the Illinois Waterway in Lemont, 29 miles south of Chicago. It measures 19-feet, 7-inches from the water line and is the lowest, unavoidable, immovable bridge on the Great Loop. There are bridges on the loop that are shorter, but they can lift or swing open. There are also shorter bridges on the loop that don’t lift or swing open, but there are alternate routes to complete the loop. For example, if you cruise the Chicago River, your boat must be shorter than 17-feet to clear the DuSable Bridge at Michigan Avenue, but if your boat is too tall you can travel the less scenic Calumet/Little Calumet Rivers and the Sanitary & Ship Canal. Another example, if you cruise the entire Erie Canal to the western terminus into Lake Erie, your boat must be shorter than 15-feet, 6-inches to clear two immovable bridges of that height, but if your boat is too tall you can head north and travel Canada’s Trent Severn Waterway. But there are no alternative routes for the bridge at MM 300.5 in Lemont, where you must clear 19-7.

A 92-foot looper boat, Pier Pressure, with its bimini top removed to fit under the Lemont Railroad Bridge

Patrick Hynes, a Chicago native, boater, and amateur historian, has dived deep into the history of this bridge. As a guest on a looper podcast, he described the history of the bridge and the impact of the height restriction on those who want to be a part of the looper fellowship. As I learned about the bridge, I see similarity between it and the questions that Reformed denominations have debated. For loopers, the bridge forces the question of who is in and who is out. In this essay, I will first describe the bridge’s history and the parallels that I see to our denominations’ current efforts to understand what it means to belong to our fellowship. Next, I will describe four possible efforts to modify the exclusion criterion in the bridge example and how these might parallel some of the current challenges we experience in our denominations. First, four facts about the bridge, as compiled by Hynes.

Bridge History

1. Lemont is unique. The Lemont Railroad Bridge is unique with respect to both its height and its movability. Of the 160 bridges on the 1,263 statute miles between Chicago and Mobile Bay, only 31 are movable. Most movable bridges stay closed for cars until a boat needs it open. Those who have visited Grand Haven, Michigan when the bridge is open know the irritation for motorists that the lift creates. Other movable bridges stay open almost all the time for boats, closing only for rare ground transportation. If you’ve ever taken Amtrak’s Pere Marquette from Chicago’s Union Station to Grand Rapids, you went over one of those movable bridges in St. Joseph and probably didn’t notice. It’s open (not connected) all the time, except for two minutes before the train arrives, when the bridge tender closes it to allow the train to continue while boaters wait for it to swing back open.

The railroad swing bridge in St. Joseph.

With respect to height, the Lemont Railroad Bridge is also unique, as it is shorter than the next two shortest bridges on the Western Rivers by almost five feet. And those three bridges are shorter than the other 126 fixed bridges by a minimum of 22 feet. Some newer bridges downriver have vertical clearances in excess of 90 feet. Clearly, the Lemont Railroad Bridge is a barrier unlike almost any other. It is a deal-breaker for those who want to join the looper fellowship. If you can clear it, the exclusion criteria of the other bridges are much more liberal (I use this word not in the political sense, but in the sense of freedom/openness).

I would argue that human sexuality has become our 19-7 bridge. More specifically, at CRC Synod 2022 and RCA General Synod 2016, how Heidelberg Q&A 108 is interpreted became our 19-7 bridge. The fact that this bridge height is so much lower than all but two of the other 128 bridges, and exceedingly shorter than the other 126, is noteworthy. It would be one thing if all of the bridge-height requirements were similar: if a boat can clear one 19-7 bridge, it can clear them all. For some Christians, this seems fair. Membership is defined by characteristics and this is one of them. In the same way that having a boat narrow enough to fit in the locks is a requirement, this requirement is no different. As fictional character Jack McCoy once said on a Law and Order episode, If you’re going to play stickball in Canarsie, you better learn Brooklyn rules.”

For others the Jack McCoy approach is uncharitable and grace-less. That a boat with a vertical clearance of 19-feet, 8-inches is barred from the entire 6,500 miles because it is one inch too tall for one of the bridges seems disproportionately harsh. The parallel question for the church might be why would the church deny full fellowship to someone who differs on only this one dimension of human experience? Although Jesus did not come to abolish the law (i.e., bridge heights), his resurrection certainly reframes the rules. We’re New Testament people who live by the command to love God and love others. If you do that, you’re welcome in the church, right?

2. The bridge existed before the river. This is counterintuitive to me. Water is natural and should predate the industrial need for bridges. But in this case, the bridge was there first and the waterway came later. In creating the Sanitary & Ship Canal, workers put the existing Lemont track on a temporary trestle, then blasted granite to create the waterway, then rebuilt the permanent train track, then blasted out the remaining granite where the temporary trestle lay. This story makes me ponder what resources come first when we make decisions on Christian teachings: scripture, the Heidelberg, systematic theological teachings, sermons, cultural norms, or (perhaps one side of the Wesleyan quadrilateral) Christian experience? That the waterway-bridge creation order is reversed in this case might get noticed by some fellow believers who say that the synodical decisions have lost touch with current science, cultural standards, and modern understanding of sin. In other words, church leaders have it backwards. No modern bridge would be allowed to be built this low. These fellow believers might argue that our thinking is reversed. Among other arguments, they might contend that we are relying on outdated biblical exegesis and ignoring the Book of Nature regarding sexuality.

Some might ask why the people who created the waterway didn’t dig deeper so that no one was prohibited from membership? One answer is that boats were smaller when the canal was created between 1895 – 1899. The norms were different and the bridge was not meant to exclude anyone. But in the modern day, the bridge is unable to welcome all boaters.

3. The bridge used to move. Pictures from 1898 show massive rollers at the bridge construction site, which amateur historian Hynes says would allow the bridge to pivot open so that all boaters could pass. But pictures from 1910 show a completed bridge with tracks that are continuous and thus unable to move.

The need to open the bridge eventually became a national imperative. With German U-boats bombing merchant and cargo vessels on the country’s eastern seaboard, America began to build warships in places like Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The Western Rivers became necessary to get these warships to the ocean, prior to the creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The Navy paid to make this bridge movable for these newly produced warships. Bridges were modified and staffed with bridge tenders to open and close them. As late as 1953, large surplus warships made their way from New Orleans to Lake Michigan. Sometime after that, this bridge stopped swinging open, excluding those who could not fit under the now-immovable bridge.

4. Some might find it ironic, perhaps even painful, that the city’s sister bridge, the Lemont Highway Bridge, is just 500 yards from the 19-7 bridge and has a 49-feet, 4-inch vertical clearance that welcomes all watercraft. Originally built in 1936, it remained a swing bridge until 1981 when it was replaced by the current higher version. A boat can navigate under this bridge, only to be turned back 500 yards later at the train bridge. As we passed under these two bridges in late October (easily with our small boat), my mind’s eye moved to State Street in Holland, where two churches sit directly across from each other, both historically rooted in the Reformed tradition. (And we have been members at both congregations in different periods of our married life.) Although separated only by two lanes of State Street, the two denominations to which these congregations belong are clearly different on the 19-7 question. Christians who seek full inclusion only to be turned away because of a denomination’s 19-7 expectation on sexuality might feel a lot like they just traveled under the Lemont Highway Bridge, only to be turned away moments later at the Lemont Railroad Bridge. Other Christians would counter that the church has always had standards of inclusion for belief and behavior, so this comparison is a red herring.

As I learned about this little-known bridge in Lemont, Illinois, I thought of the past and current challenges of the denominations to which many Reformed Journal readers belong. I reflected on the tension between our traditions and adapting to the current needs of our fellow believers, embracing science and culture, showing grace, and defining boundaries. I reflected on the cost involved in seeking change and the pain that change, or failing to change, can cause.

Four Options for Change

Based on his research, Hynes has identified four options to provide greater inclusion for loopers whose boats have a vertical clearance too tall for the Lemont Railroad Bridge. As I learned about these options, I pondered similarities that I see between these options and recent synodical decisions.

1. Remove. One solution is to remove the bridge altogether. In the gilded age of train travel, this track carried the rich and famous from Dearborn Station to Los Angeles, with passenger names like Garbo, Cagney, Bogart, and Bacall. Despite Amtrak’s impressive web, this particular track no longer carries any passenger lines. But the track has heavy freight traffic. BNSF, the track’s owner, carries much material on this track. As we approached the bridge on our own loop in October, we saw several freight trains as we passed underneath. It seems reasonable to conclude that rerouting material so critical to our nation’s economy would be disruptive. Many would argue that the hassle and cost to accommodate a few boaters is probably not worth that inconvenience.

I can hear some say that if we want to keep up with modern times, then our decisions about inclusion should reflect the changing times. What worked when the bridge was built in the 1890s does not work today. Let’s eliminate the restriction and deal with the growing pains of being more inclusive. If that causes discomfort, so be it. Times change. What worked for the church in a previous time does not work today.

Conversely, I can hear some Christian friends contend that if you want to be a part of the Christian community, it is not unreasonable to expect beliefs and behavior consistent with historic teachings. As people start to learn more about the Great American Loop, they learn what the parameters are. Similarly, Christians learn the teachings of the faith as they learn and grow in their faith.

Our boat, with 13’6” vertical clearance, approaching the Lemont Railroad Bridge in October.

2. Restore. Another option is to return the bridge to its WWII-era functionality when it did swing open. This would involve repairing and reinstalling the rollers, splitting the track over the bridge to allow it to swing open, and hiring a bridge tender to open and close it. It seems easy enough. But that would be expensive and complicated. And it would actually be a technological step backward. The reason that only 31 of the 160 bridges on the rivers from Chicago to Mobile are still movable is because many have been replaced by more durable, less expensive, and taller bridges. While restoring the bridge to its 1940s operation would provide a small group of boaters full inclusion in the looper fellowship, it is anachronistic to modern engineering.

Some might see this as a case of theological repristination—moving back to a time when doctrine was clear and accepted by almost everyone. In this case, however, such an analogy is inverted, because returning the bridge to an earlier era would actually result in greater inclusion. Nonetheless, it’s clear that many Christians have been wounded by those who desire a return to a theology of the good ol’ days.

3. Replace. A third option is to replace it with a brand-new bridge that meets modern standards and is fully inclusive. I mentioned that the taller Lemont Highway Bridge is just 500 yards from the 19-7 train bridge and does not restrict boat traffic. Is this perhaps a preview of what will happen to the 19-7 bridge—will it be torn down so a new bridge can be built that is consistent with current standards? Perhaps. But trains are not cars, and the elevation of train tracks are required to be more gradual, requiring track reconstruction to begin this gradient increase much farther back to reach the 40-plus feet needed when it crosses the water. This would be a lengthy, expensive project.

Change is hard, even gradual change. Even conceding that change is a good idea begs the question, at least in the minds of some, of what is next? After raising the train bridge in Lemont, would not boaters clamor to raise the other two bridges a few miles up on the Calumet River?

As I think about our denominations’ current struggles, I hear the concerns of traditionalists who would ask about replacing our old understanding of sexuality with a new understanding. The criticism might be something like, “Where does it end?” or “What’s next?” or “Did God change his mind?” or “Were we always wrong about this until now?” In the same way that changing the height of the Lemont Railroad Bridge will unlikely address all looper height concerns, some Christians will ask if changing our teaching on sexuality will actually address all our concerns about sexuality.

4. Raise. Engineers could lift the existing bridge five feet and it would no longer be the lowest on the loop. There is precedent for this in another context. In 2019, a bridge in Durham, North Carolina, was raised eight inches to allow for taller truck traffic. (Previously, that bridge was known as the “can opener bridge” because tops of semitrucks would get peeled open by its low clearance.) Might this be the best solution for Lemont? It would not require a huge gradient increase, making the engineering less complex. It would be a technological step forward rather than a step backward. And it would not require an entire new bridge.

Hynes contends that a path to change might reside in the Truman-Hobbs Act of 1940, which states in part that, “All bridges are obstructions to navigation and are tolerated only as long as they serve the needs of land transportation while allowing for the reasonable needs of navigation.” The law allows the commander of a local Coast Guard district to review bridges that have become obstructions to navigation. Section 5 of Truman-Hobbs allows for any citizen to file a complaint (overture?) with the local USCG commander, who is required to investigate the matter. The City of Lemont used this process when it rebuilt the (now taller) Lemont Highway Bridge.

Isn’t this what the LGBTQ community and allies have sought with overtures to denominational decision-making bodies for full inclusion? Obstructions to belonging need to be eliminated.

Others might argue that such change would only create temporary solutions. Kim Russo, executive director of the American Great Loop Cruisers Association, has been asked by some of her members to lobby civil authorities to change the 19-7 bridge so that more loopers can participate in this journey. In her podcast with Hynes, Russo is supportive but notes that it is not the “be-all-end-all solution for the Great Loop.” Indeed, it will only solve the problem by a little over a foot because the next lowest, immovable, unavoidable bridge is on the Oswego Canal to Lake Ontario, where there is a 21-foot bridge. So, to be fully part of the looper fellowship, raising the Lemont Railroad Bridge will help a little, but the next request could likely be to raise this 21-foot bridge on the Oswego Canal. Thinking about our denominations’ struggles, traditionalists might ask just how much should the church accommodate to modern standards, perhaps sort of a “how high is too high” question in the bridge context.

Based on recent synods, it seems that a majority of elders and pastors view human sexuality as a 19-7 bridge. The chasm between progressives and traditionalists is perhaps greater on this issue than any other. This chasm might be demonstrated most clearly and dramatically in how the seminal essay in Perspectives by luminary Lewis Smedes is perceived now, compared to when it was published in 1999. My colleague Steve Bouma-Prediger, a frequent contributor to this publication, summarizes well Smedes’ argument in a 2014 essay celebrating the 15th anniversary of the essay. Bouma-Prediger notes, “The church once excluded divorced and remarried people, that is, it banished them from participating in the Lord’s Supper. But over time the church changed its policy of exclusion to a policy of embrace…” Bouma-Prediger noted a fact that is hard to deny: the church has excluded people for various behavior and belief expectations through its history. I would argue that, at the time it was published, Smedes’ essay was a beacon for progressive thought on the issue of sexuality. However, 24 years later, Smedes would be viewed as traditional by most and perhaps even backward by some. For example, he describes same-sex orientation as “an anomaly, nature gone awry.” Using the vocabulary of 1999, he contends that, “homosexuality is a burden that some of God’s children are called on to bear.” Such a statement would be seen as far from progressive today, despite Smedes’ call for inclusion in the same essay: “My church’s exclusion of homosexuals who confess Christ and live together in committed love makes me very sad…. And I wonder whether the changes might be preparing us for the consideration of a new policy of embrace just as they did half a century ago.”

It’s a long way from a short bridge on the Illinois Waterway to contemplation about synodical decisions on sexuality. We all seek connections to God’s truth the best we can. For me, this story about a bridge helped me think about the complex tension between tradition and change. One hard truth is that we all have 19-7 bridges in our lives. I want to be more honest with myself about what my 19-7 bridge(s) is(are). In doing so, I must ask myself difficult questions: Do I continue to interpret traditional Christian teachings in the same way, or should I reinterpret them based on modern science and cultural understanding? Do I hold to the traditions and teachings of previous generations of church leaders, or do I need to adjust my thinking to current understandings? As our boat passed under the Lemont bridge in October, I said a quick silent prayer that I would be more honest about my own “lowest bridge” and what impact it has on others who want to be a member of the body of Christ.

I thank Steve Bouma-Prediger and Andy McCoy of Hope College and fellow looper Charlie Carlson of the University of Kentucky for reading previous drafts of this essay.

Scott VanderStoep

Scott VanderStoep is a professor of psychology and former dean for social sciences (2012 – 2023) at Hope College.


  • Tony Chapman says:

    As a fellow boater in the San Francisco Bay and Delta, and member of RCA church in Bay Area, I recognize your bridge issues well. I have experiences from both above and below the bridge decks.
    The history of Sanitary and Ship Canal and 19-7 Bridge having existed before the canal I see as analogist for traditionalist in this way. A new river is rushing against the existing infrastructure. Each act to accommodate the power of the oncoming river is rejected as insufficient. So, at some point the line is drawn and seawalls are fortified.

    Your Ranger would be very welcome in the Bay and Delta to cruise along with our Tung Hwa Clipper.

    “The Load promises safe harbor, not smooth crossings.”
    Tony Chapman

  • Al Schipper says:

    19 – 7 ?? You mean we should look back and look forward so that we can carpe diem in order to push the envelope and then raise the bar so all people can maybe dance and be joyous?
    Pretty radical stuff. Sounds a lot like Jesus.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I enjoyed this very much. Perceptive.

  • Ordu Amoris says:

    Might be important to recall the stakes here. Some of the things the church is not doing is: preventing people from acting on their passions; pursing Christ while being sinners; forcing all denominations to believe a certain way; or even preventing individuals from working out their own salvations. The question before us here is, “what actions should reformed church leadership encourage within the Biblical meaning of faithfulness to Christ.” These are the highest stakes. To many this question is the same as, “What is the gospel of Jesus Christ?”

    This website is full of artful complaints against the meanness, the backwardness, the misinterpretations, the bigotry, the low mindedness, the failure to modernize of the reformed Church. And this is yet one more. Complaints are often around the “clobber passages” which is to say against the places in scripture that are obvious and plain – even to the backward laity who might feel strongly about certain standards of righteousness.

    There can be no doubt that the modern world would very much like to have a modern Christ – a modern Church and a modern moral standard. And if scripture is correct, it will have exactly that before the end.