Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Book discussion chapter 3: Countering commuter culture

While I was out at the end of last week, I missed the fact that Charity Singleton and L. L. Barkat have posted their latest blog reflections discussing my book, specifically chapter 3 about suburban commuter culture. Charity is already living out many of the things I recommend. Here are some of her thoughts:
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. . . . 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.

. . . 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.
At the Fire retreat this past weekend, after I talked about some of these commuting issues, several folks chatted with me afterward and pushed back a bit. Many folks in this group commute half an hour or more to church because the church is such a dynamic, awesome community that it's worth the drive to them, despite the commute time. I understand that, and obviously all of our circumstances vary and I can't make blanket one-size-fits-all suggestions for everyone. But I do challenge folks that if they're spending most of their time quite a distance away from their place of residence (especially if they're commuting a ways to reach their Christian community), to consider ways to either relocate closer to that community or to bring some of that community closer to home, whether getting together with a bunch of Christian friends to live intentionally in the same apartment complex or neighborhood or whatnot.

One fellow was a bit defensive, saying that his circumstances require him to have long days commuting various distances and places, but that because he's young and single he can manage it, and it actually enables him to minister and serve the community in ways that most other folks can't. So I affirmed him in his ministry and encouraged him to continue to serve his church and deploy his resources strategically, while at the same time giving a bit of a caution of living an extreme commuter lifestyle indefinitely. After all, there are stewardship issues involved (gas in Chicagoland is now at $3.64 a gallon!), and at some point being on the road all the time just becomes unsustainable. All of us have different thresholds of how much is too much, but in general, our lives are healthier when we do what we can to minimize our time commuting.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for being willing to say the hard things, the unpopular but necessary and prophetic things challenging us to get out of our lazy and all-too-comfortable American mindsets.

L.L. Barkat said...

Yes, your last point here was what surprised me most... the health issue. All those extra ailments that suburbanites have, ostensibly because of commute time!

Wouldn't you know it, I went out and bought a bike at the end of the week. It felt so good to ride it as our Sunday fun together. Emissions-free. And all the mileage went to my legs.

Anonymous said...

Al -- I wish I had a little of your wisdom in knowing how to respond to people who feel defensive about the things I'm learning in your book. When I mentioned that I was thinking of riding the bus to work, one friend told me she would pray for me. Then, after she found out I probably wouldn't actually save money by doing it (I only live three miles from work), she asked, "What's the point?" To take the bus would mean I would actually have to walk an extra mile a day (to and from bus stops), and it would also mean that there would be one less car on the road doing all the things cars do. But when I explained this, it seemed like she felt I was asking her to take the bus. I wasn't.

What I am learning more than anything in my life is that I need to THINK about what I'm doing through the grid of my Christian faith, rather than just passively living like everyone else. Thanks for letting us discuss this with you.

Unknown said...

What your saying is so true, Al. As a big time commuter, I have found exactly these problems in my life - no time for ministry, bad health, fractured relationships (although my carpool friendship is great :).

I'm working on it though - 7 minute drive to work coming soon.

Andy in Germany said...

I have some of the same here: I run a small christian based arts organisation, and we are going to a couple of other churches this summer. Team members kept saying "But we're going to XYZ church by car, right?". It's great to see christians increasingly talking about this sort of thing. Keep up the good work...

L.L. Barkat said...

Chapter 3 was good. Chapter 4 is even better.