Church leaders around the country should be doing everything they can to reconnect the social bonds of our communities. We reconnect the social bonds most easily and effectively when we reconnect the physical bonds. We should be obsessed with getting people out of their cars and back into each other’s lives.
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I wasn’t expecting this Sunday’s preaching to include an anti- bike lane message, but nonetheless, as I sat there yesterday with my family in the third row at St. Andrews Catholic Church, I received just that. The priest let us know that there would be a meeting tonight (Monday) in which the city council would be asked to determine which side of the street would lose parking in order to accommodate a bike lane. I was so perplexed, I almost took the Lord’s name in vain (and during Lent, no less).
My perplexity resides on many levels. First, this comes just a month after I had bought my priest a copy of Eric Jacobsen’s Sidewalks in the Kingdom (The Christian Practice of Everyday Life) and shared with him some written thoughts on how we, as a parish, could serve our neighbors by starting a dialog on walking and biking within the community. I was prompted to reach out to him after a sermon in which he referenced the seminal work by Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone (which I’ve also read – incredible).
In a fantastic and inspiring sermon, our priest had lamented some of the community challenges outlined by Putnam, a lament I shared when I read Bowling Alone over a decade ago. That book, and other experiences, started me on an obsession with learning more about early Christian communities and how they influenced Christian teaching. I’m not an ideal parishioner nor a very good Catholic – God gave me a brain more prone to question than obey – but I’ve found a lot of comfort in how the simple message of Jesus to love one’s neighbor as oneself can be applied to make all of our communities a little stronger.
I probably should have made an appointment to go and meet with our priest, but I’m a writer more than a conversationalist and so, on matters this close to home, I tend to either write or just stay silent. There was nothing really secret or personal about the letter I wrote, so I’ve shared it over on our member discussion board. In that letter, you’ll find this statement (more of a humble challenge):
When we resist the urge to tear down buildings for more parking, we may inconvenience our parishioners who have to walk a block to get to church, but we provide more opportunity for people who want to live with a deep, physical connection to the church.
My hometown has two Catholic churches. We used to go to one on the north side but, when the kids were born, we found ourselves perpetually late for the 9:00 AM mass, at which point we would drive to the other church on the south side and arrive in time for the 9:30 AM mass. We found we liked the south side church and decided to save ourselves the stress and just start going to the later mass.
The north side church – beautifully christened St. Francis – is a cathedral style building. Growing up I was always in awe of the columns and the arches and the stained glass. It just seemed so magnificent. We still do Christmas service there because I have so many great memories. The magnificence of St. Francis church used to be snuggled into a traditional neighborhood, with the school and the rectory and lots of housing surrounding it. Over the years, the church has purchased and removed a lot of these properties to build – what else – parking lots. Plans were unveiled last year for expansion of the church which would include – what else – more parking.
Bowling Alone rings like a steeple bell in my head. We’re disconnected from each other today in many ways that baffle those who examine the symptoms. We don’t join community groups. We have less fellowship with each other. We may come together for a Sunday mass, but we’re not deeply involved in each other’s lives. Is the Church part of this or just a passive observer dealing with the fallout?
It is more than a little ironic to me that I’ve had more conversations with our next door neighbors of the past sixteen years in the brief moments walking in and out of church than I’ve ever had on our street or, perhaps more amazingly, in each other’s homes. When either of us travel to church, we back out of our garages, hit the automatic garage door opener to close it, drive to church, park in one of the convenient parking lots, attend church and then do the trip home in reverse. Essentially, we’re Churching Alone.