Community through physical space


I hate driving. I dislike radio commercials, traffic lights, getting into a car that is 50 degrees warmer than the already hot Texas afternoon (although right now it is a bearable), and of course, I detest all other cars that are in my way. When I get behind a steering wheel and close the door to my car, I am shut off from the world. I am King, and anybody who gets in my way should be ticketed, fined, or should have to pay me some sort of massive fine for causing me such an inconvenience. Jesus was surely speaking to me when he said to tear out your right eye and throw it away if it causes you to sin, because my car brings indignation and enmity to my heart without fail. The application of tearing out my eye? I choose to walk.

It is due to my desire to walk most everywhere that Julianna and I decided to move to an apartment complex on Southwest Parkway and to share one car. I walk to my office, to Regents (where many of my students attend school), and to friends’ homes that are nearby in Travis Country. But, as much as I want to walk, the physical structure of where I live makes it very difficult. My walk to the office is through a long parking lot with no sidewalk onto the shoulder of a highway with no sidewalk, then through another parking lot; my walk to Regents leads through the woods onto a street with an incomplete sidewalk; and my walk to the homes of neighbors in Travis Country is almost always a minimum of one mile. Sound confusing? Make you want to drive? Of course it does. 

These obstacles to pedestrian life got me thinking about “community,” and our attempts to develop community. It’s for the sake of community that I choose to ditch my car and walk, and it’s typically for the sake of community that we at All Saints spend so much time talking about (and participating in) small groups, dinner groups, etc. On the pedestrian hand, I have been trying to approach community in much the same way that I did in college: proximity to others, which inevitably leads to regular, unplanned interaction with people. On the small group hand, community has happened as it does for most post-collegians: through regular scheduled gatherings. These two hands seem like they need to be brought together.

I was determined to read more on the subject. I had already read about small groups, dinner groups, etc., so I decided to read books about neighborhood development and town planning, Sidewalks in the Kingdom and Suburban Nation. Both are very interesting books written by “new urbanists” who spend a great deal of time convincing readers that the structure, order, and buildings in a neighborhood, town, or city either generate or diminish community. The authors argue that we have, in America, organized our neighborhoods in such a way that it has forced us out of a pedestrian lifestyle, where we could regularly run into one another throughout our day, into a car-dominated existence where we spend a lot of time by ourselves, unable to communicate (except by cell-phone) and thus unable to foster relationships. The interesting thing is that we have chosen to do this.

"This country's love affair with the car has been fueled largely by our preoccupation with independence. The car allows us to do what we want when we want, irrespective of distance or obstacle.  It seems to be the perfect venue for the quintessential American experience and has over the years become the dominant feature of our daily lives.  However, what we have failed to realize after almost a century of car culture is that the cumulative effect of our use of this machine has limited its ability to deliver on its promise." (Eric Jacobsen, Sidewalks in the Kingdom)

In our attempt to achieve independence, self-actualization, and the like, we have severely diminished our ability to interact with other humans. We have created a physical world where we have constricted our ability to interact with people.  We now have to take extra risk to love and care for others that we often times is too scary or uncertain, because nobody wants to get burned.

The car is a wonderful invention that allows us a greater reach, but we have "moved from thinking of the car as a convenience to considering it a necessity" (Jacobsen). As that reach has grown and grown, our cities have gone from a human-scale to an automobile-scale. As a result, we have far less public space (sidewalks, parks, quads) in which to encounter people. It's in regards to this idea that Jacobsen makes a very interesting point:

"The public spaces of first-century Palestine were an integral part of Jesus' ministry on earth and facilitated his incarnational approach with people. Certainly, Jesus spent time in the private spaces of other people's homes. He also ministered in the semiprivate realm of temple and synagogue. But by and large, most of his ministry took place in public spaces, where he risked relationship with people he didn't know and interacted with them on neutral territory."

We don’t often talk about the physical nature of our built environment as a means to help us fellowship with other Christians or minister to our neighbors, but maybe we should. As humans, God made us to be in relationship with one another, and we regularly struggle to build those relationships and feel like we belong to a community. If these problems are made more difficult because of sin, shouldn’t we be doing all that we can, even if it inconveniences us, to connect to our brothers and sisters in Christ and care for those who don’t know him?  We should continue to invite people into our homes for dinner, to study the Bible with others, to invite them to have coffee or lunch, but we should also think about the development of our neighborhoods and city. We should knit these two ways of building community together, because at the very least, then I will be able to walk to work on a sidewalk.

I have not read a lot about these subjects, but if you’d like to learn along with me, the next book that I will be reading is Till We Have Built Jerusalem.  What are your thoughts on these ideas?