A couple of days ago, a coworker came back from lunch in an uproar.
“Do you know how much gas is now?” she asked, referring to the skyrocketing prices.
“$3.45?” I said, highballing it for effect.
“Oh, I guess you’ve seen.”
“No, really,” I protested. “I just guessed. How much is it really?”
“$3.38,” she said. And then she added, “You’re lucky you live so close.”
“It was intentional,” I said back, feeling a little defensive.
This is not the first time people at work or church have commented about how lucky I am that I live close to both. Or that people have mentioned how great it is that I “found” a church so close to where I work, as if it were all coincidence.
Having my home, church, work, shops, library, and coffee shop all within a five-mile radius is no accident, and most of my daily activity happens within an even smaller two-mile radius. Many of my closest friends also live within the larger radius, and most within a 15-minute drive. As Al Hsu, in The Suburban Christian, would say, I am living with a parish mind-set.
In chapter three of The Suburban Christian, Al discusses the role of the automobile in shaping the suburbs. As cars became more and more predominant, people could live further and further away from their jobs and churches. The suburbs just kept expanding. As the suburbs expanded, however, the people living in them spent more and more time in their car and less and less time with other people, especially their families.
My decision to keep myself and my daily activities all close together is much simpler for me as a single person who lives alone. The discussion I mentioned above with my coworker went on to include a discussion of schools and affordable housing and childcare and automobiles. Some people feel trapped by unforgiving economic situations; others want to be near family but that means a long commute to the nearest metropolitan area.
Long commutes between work, church, shopping and home don’t just keep people away from their families. All this driving time means that people are exercising less and are generally less involved in civic and church activities. Al cites a stastistic that for every 10 minutes of daily commute, outside involvements are cut 10 percent.
Closely connected with these automotive issues are the ever-looming environmental concerns. All that time spent in traffic means more emissions, more wear and tear on roads and the vehicles themselves, more need to build new highways. Even in my little parish life in which most of my time is spent in a relatively small area, I still drive more than I would like. The part of the city I live in was not designed to encourage walking or bike riding.
But all the statistics and anecdotal evidence aside, I continue to appreciate Al’s commitment to seeing these suburban issues from a Christian perspective. How does my relationship with Jesus come to bear on these issues of transportation? Several friends and I have been trying to carpool to social and church events. It saves on all of us driving, and it also gives us more time together in the car. Instead of driving to the park in the evenings, which takes 15 minutes because it’s rush hour, I’ve started walking my dog in the neighborhood behind me.
And more than anything, I’m realizing that driving and all its implications is an idol in my life — or at the very least, an addiction. When Al challenged readers to fast from driving for a week, at first I panicked. NO CAR???? Then, I began to realize that there’s more than transportation wrapped up in that vehicle. It’s a sign of independence, a method of efficiency, and a safety net of sorts when things get hard. At least I can always get myself home on my own terms.
I’m considering taking up the week of car fasting, though it’s going to involve some planning. But more than anything, I am rethinking how God is glorified (or not) by how I get around.
Photos of commuters in front of my house taken by me
Other links about The Suburban Christian: