Sunday 19 July 2015

An old-fashioned prejudice, a wasted Bronx life - and the spiritual imperative to make streets safer

When I was growing up in sectarianism-ridden Glasgow, a friend relayed to me – in a rather shocked tone – an almost perfect example of self-reinforcing prejudice he’d heard from an older relative.

“You can tell a Catholic by two things: the way he keeps his garden, and the way he drives his car,” it went.

I had a powerful mental image of the old man’s walking past weed-strewn gardens and tutting that their owners must be Catholics or being cut up while driving and muttering, “Must be a Catholic”. Many of those at whom he frowned and sucked his teeth will of course have been, say, elders of the Church of Scotland, pillars of the local synagogue or stalwart atheists. But, in the nature of the act of walking past a garden or encountering another driver on the road, the prejudice will have gone unchallenged.
I can't divine these drivers' religions based
on their blocking the Hudson St bike lane.
But I believe it's a moral - and spiritual -
issue that they're doing so.
Yet the saying has come back to me because, however reprehensible the sentiment, it’s one of the few examples I’ve heard of someone’s making a link between someone’s driving and his or her religious convictions. The paucity of thinking about the connection of faith and road behaviour is part of a tendency, it seems to me, for the religiously observant – among whom I include myself – to minimise the moral significance of innovations – whether motor vehicles, guns or unhealthy lifestyles – subsequent to their religion’s revelation. Religious people often have strong feelings about sexuality, diet or family life - but are much less decided about the morality of using hydrocarbons or driving carelessly.

It’s an important omission, with here-and-now consequences. That became clear to me when I read about the behaviour of the church of Kwasi Oduro, who killed seven-year-old Ethan Villavicencio. Ethan died in June in The Bronx after Oduro reversed his car so carelessly it shot off the road, over the sidewalk and into the restaurant where Ethan was eating with his five-year-old sister and his father. Oduro drove over the boy twice, once on the way into the restaurant, then again when he drove off from the scene, before being captured two blocks away. Oduro claims that his brakes malfunctioned.

Although he had taken a young boy’s life and fled the scene, Oduro’s church – North Bronx Ghanaian Seventh Day Adventists – quickly raised $10,000 to get him out of jail, where he was being held on charges of leaving the scene of an “accident,” as New York’s legal system mislabels such crashes.

The church members’ readiness to raise Oduro’s bail suggests they saw his arrest as a mere misfortune for them to overcome collectively, rather than a moral issue. It may have seemed to belong to the same class as, say, someone’s need to find the airfare to return for the funeral of a relative in Ghana or the sudden, unexpected loss of a job. I find it hard to believe the church would have rallied round if Oduro had killed a seven-year-old with anything other than a car and tried to flee. It’s a blind spot about the morality of driving that, in my experience, many Christians – as well as people of other faiths – share.
A fairly minor car crash: but what's the spiritual significance
of this collision?

It’s vital to start being aware of that blind spot – and to eliminate it - for both spiritual and practical reasons. The spiritual reason is simple. If one claims to follow a belief system that gives one moral insights and the determination to act on them yet neglects to act morally on the streets, one’s a hypocrite. The point goes not only for Christians but, I think, for people following any religion that stresses the value of human life and the imperative to treat others respectfully.

The practical reasons should concern everyone, including those – of whom there are, I know, many among this blog’s readers – who reject all faith as a delusion.  In societies where many people set their moral compass in some sense by the lodestone of religious principles, it must be a concern if there’s a wholesale failure to apply those principles to a problem that, in the US, kills nearly 33,000 people annually.

The issue’s all the more important because some religious institutions are big generators of car traffic. In US cities, many long-established church congregations – including, to some extent, my own Episcopal church in Park Slope – serve communities that were once clustered close to the church but have now dispersed elsewhere. The result is often that people drive from their suburban homes to their more urban churches, generating demand for parking and, often, making it harder to put in improvements such as bike lanes. In the suburbs, megachurches typically stand surrounded by the same empty space as a renaissance cathedral – except that the space is for parking the congregation’s cars, not enhancing the building’s majesty. I can’t recall ever having heard of a church’s reflecting on the morality of its role in traffic issues.
Minivans parked for a Hasidic community event block
a sidewalk and bike lane in Williamsburg: a bad moral choice,
in my view.

My reaction to all this is, naturally, shaped by my own spiritual experience. Having been brought up in a home that was Christian but not fanatical, I underwent an intense spiritual experience at 14. It led me to a version of Christianity that was far more fervent in its convictions and rigid in its doctrine than my parents’. Much of the time since has been spent clinging, with varying degrees of tenacity, to the central elements of that personal faith amid a storm of discoveries about the intellectual and spiritual shortcomings of that early evangelicism. I have arrived, I hope, at a religious practice that reflects more truly the moral imperatives of my faith, while discarding some unhelpful cultural baggage.

I remain, as past blogposts here will have made clear, a profoundly flawed advert for the spiritual life. I shout sometimes at drivers that scare me and deploy withering sarcasm and invective at the occasional pedestrian who deliberately blocks my way. I believe myself forgiven for my many flaws – but still regularly rack up new acts requiring forgiveness.
A crowd outside Manhattan's Stonewall Inn celebrates the
Supreme Court's marriage equality decision. Unlike some
fellow Christians, I believe Christ would share their joy.
I am seeking nevertheless these days to focus on the character of Christianity’s founder revealed in the gospels and less on the detailed concerns about doctrine and personal behaviour that many evangelicals derive from detailed dissection of Paul’s epistles. Were Jesus living in Brooklyn in 2015 in the same sense he did in first century Palestine, I surmise he’d be concerned about the US’s continued racist treatment of black people and not seeking to prevent loving, committed gay couples from getting married. He would be angry about the plight of children living in poverty - and eager to have women as well as men preach in church.

Traffic has come increasingly to seem to me like an issue that would profoundly concern such a modern-day Christ. Cars’ dominance of many cities reflects a mid-20th century prioritisation of the needs of the well-off and suburban over the poor and urban. Officials’ reluctance to use speed cameras and many other mechanisms to prevent deaths and injuries reflects a bias in favour of the convenience of generally better-off motorists over the lives and health of the generally poorer people that suffer disproportionately in crashes.

The preference for fuel-hungry private cars over less polluting public transport, walking and cycling reflects a selfish, short-sighted readiness to let others live with the effects of pollution and climate change. People are willing to risk others’ lives in order to send a text faster while driving because of a whole cocktail of different mixed-up priorities.

Many of these abuses look to me like modern manifestations of the abuses by tax collectors and other rich, powerful figures against which Jesus regularly rails in the gospels. Much of scripture celebrates the beauty of creation in a way that makes me doubt the spiritual warrant for building so many six-lane, noisy highways through it. Many other religious traditions criticise similar abuses.
An expression of bourgeois preference for driving over
alternatives: congregants block the bike lane outside
Brooklyn's Roman Catholic basilica.
Yet, at its worst, religious observance can descend into an expression of petty bourgeois identity of which owning and driving a car are central parts. A person going to church or a mosque or a gurdwara in a car is far more powerfully segregated from the polluting, unspiritual people around than someone travelling on a subway train or on a bicycle. Since many religious traditions – including those in which I grew up – stress the primary importance of keeping oneself morally pure, it’s not surprising that many respectable churchgoers see cars shut off from the wider, unpredictable world as good ways of getting to church. There’s a natural, rather depressing human tendency for the religious to focus more on keeping a set of rules laid down centuries ago than on seeking positively to live as good a life as possible. The rules naturally have nothing direct to say about how to drive.

The outcomes of such attitudes are visible and damaging. I’ve complained before about being forced to swerve out into a busy lane of vehicle traffic on finding the congregation of Downtown Brooklyn’s Catholic basilica had decided illegally to park blocking the bike lane. I’ve encountered still more dangerous conditions created when members of New York’s Hasidic Jewish community parked their vehicles blocking both a sidewalk and two-way cycle lane in Williamsburg for a large community celebration.
Be outraged, yes, at the violation of the bike lane. But spare
some outrage, please, for the misuse of that little fish
symbol above the licence plate.
Cycling through Queens last month, I encountered a stretch limousine parked blocking a two-way bike lane - and carrying the fish bumper sticker that some Christians use to identify themselves to other drivers. In Washington, DC, in 2013, the city was pushed into eliminating a block from a new protected bike lane on M Street because an African Methodist Episcopal church said the plan would eliminate car parking without which its members would be unable to worship on Sundays. A bishop in my own denomination, the American Episcopal Church, faces a series of charges after she hit and killed Thomas Palermo, a man cycling near Baltimore, while driving drunk. She initially fled the scene.

No credible spiritual organisation should be content that its members are complicit in such prioritisations of their own convenience over others’ lives and health.

The lack of a religious voice on this issue struck me particularly forcefully this past Monday when I attended a vigil organised by Families for Safe Streets – an admirable organisation founded by survivors of crashes and relatives of the dead – at Union Square in Greenwich Village. A series of people – including parents and spouses of victims of crashes, crash survivors and city council members – read out the names of the 123 people already killed in crashes so far this year in New York.

The Families for Safe Streets vigil: an emotional, powerful
event, without, sadly, a spiritual leader.
Many of those present at the vigil have, I know, received comfort from their religious communities after wrenching losses. Large numbers of activists for safe streets have meaningful spiritual lives – including many who are active in their local synagogues. The problems that lead to the traffic deaths are complex and will not be resolved, of course, by religious communities’ merely enjoining their members to exercise, say, greater care when reversing into parking spaces near restaurants. A wholesale reordering of priorities is needed, from changes in road design to more serious enforcement of traffic laws to moves to make it far harder to obtain a driving licence than I found it when I took my New York test earlier this month.

Yet, for many causes in New York that are not explicitly religious, it would have seemed obvious to invite alongside the politicians and activists at least one religious figure who had identified with the cause in question. At Monday’s vigil, I saw no sign of a religious figure who has made street safety his or her signature cause.

Holy Trinity Clapham: proud history
That seems to me a glaring omission. While I recognise my personal spiritual take on the issue is a minority one, I believe that significant numbers of New Yorkers have some feeling there is a wider spiritual dimension to life. It seems hard to me to conceive of a God who would not grieve deeply and urge action over losses like that of Ethan Villavicencio, whose mother gave a heart-wrenching interview to the Daily News, She was across the street when he was hit and came back to find his life ebbing a way in the spot where he’d been waiting for her to come and eat ice cream.

Religious communities can, of course, be slow to wake up to horrors then brave in countering them. I’m proud, for example, that Holy Trinity Clapham – the church I attended in London – played a vital role in campaigning for the abolition of the slave trade. The Scottish matron who looked after the school once attached to St Columba’s Budapest, the church I attended when I lived in Hungary, died in Auschwitz after staying to look after the children even after the Nazi takeover of Hungary. A number of Jewish refugees nevertheless survived the Holocaust by hiding under the building’s floor. It may well be that church leaders will start soon to recognise the waste of life on roads throughout the world for the urgent moral and spiritual issue that it is.
The car that killed Alejandro Moran-Marin, outside Brooklyn's
78th precinct house: a stark reminder of the costs of delay
Yet, in New York, nearly every day that passes without its religious communities’ bringing their energy, passion and outrage to the battle there’s a price to pay. There was a powerful reminder of that towards the end of Monday’s vigil. We were asked, if we could, to kneel at the end of the vigil to commemorate Alejandro Moran-Marin, a cyclist who had been killed just the day before near Brooklyn’s Barclays Center when a driver veered across the road and ran into him head-on.

As I knelt holding my bike in one hand and a yellow carnation in the other, I – and I imagine some others – fell into prayer over such appalling wastes of life. It occurs to me that I have never heard prayers specifically over the same issue in a more traditional religious setting. I can only hope that a spreading recognition of the slaughter’s senselessness and immorality means that omission will soon be rectified.


  1. Beautiful reflection. Although I am not Christian I think that the effort to bring religion into the discussions of traffic violence and motorist irresponsibility is completely appropriate and in fact long overdue. More generally, as with Chuck Marohn's podcast interviews with Christian scholars on the physical design of cities, I think that it's great to get a take from the religious about their views on relatively mundane aspects of secular life; in particular, urban planning and related aspects of civic work. You are enriching the discussion immensely when you do this.

    1. Ralfff,

      Thank you for your kind words. As the post suggests, I think it's critical for religious communities to recognise the enormous damage that current street conditions are doing - and I think it could be helpful for the safer streets movement to tap into the energy and passion of religious believers.

      All the best,


  2. I live in London and there there was a recent local news story about a Buddhist Vihara in the area complaining bitterly that the council had substantially reduced the number of subsidised parking permits they could have. The Vihara is literally a minutes walk from a tube station.

    I think most people don't really contemplate the wider implications of their transport choices, or they do and deliberately choose to ignore the implications. In that respect, religious groups are just a reflection of society as a whole.

    1. Michael,

      Thank you. That's a very interesting example - and a first mention of Buddhism around this issue.

      It's true that religious groups reflect wider society. But they aspire to inspire people to be more moral and better than wider society, so it's a failure if they don't do that.

      All the best,


  3. Dear Robert,

    Thank you for your writing. In my opinion, the religious tolerance of traffic violence is a manifestation of how people who should know better are influenced by "the world." This is, of course, the world as condemned by Jesus in John 15: 18-25.

    In this passage, Jesus provides fair warning that anyone who is loyal to him will be hated by the world.

    Here is my take on why cyclists are so widely hated: I believe that every human being has a conscience, which is one way that God reveals himself to each person. While it is true that people can (and do!) go to great lengths to ignore and shut down their conscience, it is impossible to completely do so.

    Car drivers know that they are launching lethal poison attacks upon the people of New York City, and their conscience is troubling them about it. Every time they see a cyclist, that provides an opportunity for their conscience to remind them that poisoning and killing people is wrong.

    The response is to hate cyclists. To quote from the NIV translation of John 15:18-20a,

    If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: "A servant is not greater than his master." If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.

    Applying this passage to NYC today, the cyclist is an icon or image of God and a stimulus to the conscience of car drivers. That is why we are hated so much.

    1. Kevin,

      Thank you, as ever, for your comment.

      The most popular-ever post on this blog remains one about why people get angry with cyclists - - and it reflects some of the same points that you make. But I tend to think that, rather than feeling their consciences pricked about their road behaviour and cyclists' comparative virtue, they're simply unaware of the moral dimensions of their behaviour. The scandal is that that unawareness extends to people who should have a keener sense of conscience than others, rather than those whom one might expect not to care.

      All the best,


  4. I have forwarded the URL for this post to the chair of the worship committee at my church. We were the first "earth-centered" UU church in TX back in 2000 and are now openly Pagan in our worship. One of the shared cornerstones of our various faiths is respect and caring for the earth and all who dwell upon it.

    1. Opus,

      Thank you for your comment. I hadn't, I must say, expected to get comments from someone who worships in a Pagan fashion in a denomination in the Christian tradition.

      We probably differ slightly in our conceptions of how God relates to the wider world. But you're certainly right that it's one of the joys of cycling and other less harmful modes of transport that they don't damage the earth. I hope your worship committee finds the piece interesting and useful.

      All the best,


  5. How can anyone be such a bad driver they can't even back up without smashing through the window of a restaurant and killing one of the customers?

    How does someone like Mr. Oduro even come about a drivers license in the first place?

    1. Tal,

      Thanks for your comment - and I share your bafflement. But I'd point out that Mr Oduro was at one point a taxi driver and so passed, presumably, some kind of enhanced test. One would think that would entail a degree of competence well beyond what he seems to have displayed in this dreadful incident.

      All the best,


  6. Very interesting and worthwhile post. I agree with the commentator above who said that its a reflection of society as a whole. We have a terrible blind spot about cars. It *is* particularly shameful that religious groups don't engage more in the issue though.

    1. Ishara,

      Thank you for your kind words,

      All the best,



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