Christine Thompson, who will be ordained about a year from now as a pastor, doesn’t own a car. She never has. In fact, she doesn’t even have a driver’s license. She doesn’t need one, because for thirty years Vicar Thompson has taken public transportation almost everywhere she goes.
At first, the decision not to drive was born out of necessity. “I left my parents’ home at age 18,” explained Thompson, an intern at the Thai Community Church and St. Paul’s, “I was a very, very poor working student. Finances didn’t really allow for a car.”
But later on the choice was made because she wanted to.
“The longer I looked at what was happening in my home town of Madison, Wis., with traffic congestion and air pollution: and the more I worked with people with disabilities and the aging, the more I realized how much damage we do with our presumptions that the private automobile is the preferred way or the only way,” Thompson said.
The presumption that the private automobile is the preferred way is a key concept in understanding her passion for public transportation.
“[Back in Madison] I began to get very, very annoyed as I listened to debate after debate about how tax payers had to subsidize public transport. There seems to be a feeling that our roads and highways come somehow free of charge. There’s actually quite a bit of taxpayer support, not just for the roads and highways across this country, but for the automobile and petroleum products industries. People just don’t think about those costs quite as much,” she said.
So, Thompson made a conscious decision years ago to not own a car and to use public transportation, a decision based on her understanding of ecology, justice, witness and safety.
We can’t afford a world where everyone owns and drives a car, and where the private automobile is the standard,” Thompson contends. “There’s no way, given our current technology, that the ecology can stand that much pollution in the air, nor that much ground paved over.”
“Because we assume that the private automobile is the norm, those who can’t drive are very, very marginalized and isolated,” she said.
“You don’t want people who can’t understand cause and effect on the roads,” she explained. “You don’t want people with blurred or tunnel vision on the roads. You don’t want people who have uncontrolled seizure disorders on the road.”
“So,” she said, “I choose not to drive, as a witness to the position that says that we need to rethink our models of transportation, in order to have a more just, more equitable, more ecologically sound system.”
What is it like to not have the convenience of a car? As far as Thompson is concerned it feels very normal. She pointed out that people who drive cars have to deal with the headaches of buying gas, figuring out which route to take, keeping track of where they put the keys, and coping with rush hour traffic, and they consider that “normal.”
She acknowledges that when she is in a new area it takes time to figure out what the bus or train or subway or elevated system is like. She has to work on the system’s schedule, not her own. And she has to maintain her patience.
“You have to learn some tolerance”that other people on the bus may have eaten garlic for breakfast, or may have their music turned up so that all you hear is the bass hiss, or may be using the cell phone,” she said.
Once she has figured out the system and the schedule, however, taking public transportation becomes pretty a routine. And one other thing: You get to meet some pretty interesting people Thompson said, “It’s nice to be reminded”even though there may be days you don’t want to be”that there are all kinds and sorts of people in this world. It’s good to be brought face to face with the variety of people that there are in this world.”
How is her decision not to drive going to play out when she is an ordained pastor in a parish?
“There will certainly have to be some education and acculturation on the part of the congregation,” she predicted, “but I don’t think there’ll be all that much difference between me and any other pastor.”
Thompson feels called to ministry in urban situations, which tend to have more developed public transportation systems than in rural areas. In addition, her experience indicates that, although she has received rides from church members during her internship, she would have been able to get to 90% for the destinations by using public transportation.
Besides, she sees her choice not to drive as a direct outcome of the fact that she, as a person and as a future pastor, does take her faith seriously.
“I believe that this world was created good,” she asserted, “and that we should be caretakers of it, partners with God in seeing to it that the world itself has life, and life abundant”so I try to make choices that keep the earth healthy. I also believe that God wants our society and economic structures to be as fair and just as we can possibly make them.”
In other words, whether they agree with her choice or not, members of her congregation will know that they have a leader who walks the walk (or rides public transportation) as well as talking the talk.
Thompson pointed out that the United States is quite unusual in terms of how much we use our cars. If you travel to Europe, for example, many people would not think of taking their car to the center of the city to hear a concert or go shopping. She envisions a future in which many more people would use public transportation, which would stimulate improvements in the schedules and maintenance of equipment, decrease air pollution and allow greater access to people isolated because of age, disability or income.
And one more thought for those who have dodged pot holes and tried to stay on course through drifting snow these last few weeks: “And it’s nice, in winter especially,” Thompson said, “to have somebody else worrying about road conditions and traffic.”