by Rev. Laura Everett
In urban cycling, there is a section of the road called “the door zone.” If you ride your bike close to parked cars (but out of moving traffic), you are liable to get hit by a motorist opening a car door into you. Conversely, if you ride close to the moving traffic (but out of the way of parked car doors), you are likely to annoy the motorists in the flow of traffic, again risking your own safety.
I want you to hear what I think our conversations about the tragedy of Bishop Heather Cook killing cyclist Thomas Palermo look like from my vantage point in the door zone. I write to you as an urban cyclist, and a loving and invested observer of the Episcopal Church. Our conversations look self-involved.
A man has died. And we have spent the preponderance of our social media conversation talking not about Tom Palermo, but talking about protocols for episcopal elections, proper disclosure of information, and “what this means for the Church.” We say “it is a utter tragedy for all involved,” and then spend 97% of the conversation about the tragedy this is for the Church. Perhaps all this focus on Bishop Cook and the Church is a symptom of the family disease of alcoholism in our family system of the Church. It is good and right and far overdue that we have serious conversation about addiction and recovery in the Church, alcohol in the Church, and how we talk to one another in the Church. But if these are the only conversation we are having, we look and probably are, self-involved.
Each blog post I have read reacting to Bishop Cook’s accident and the arrest that followed has included at least one sentence calling for prayer for the Palermo family. Many blog posts have pointed to a fund for the Palermo children. These actions are right and good, but not enough. If these brief sentences are simply footnotes to “the real conversation,” the Church again looks self-involved, like the biggest tragedy here is a besmirching of an ecclesial reputation. This should be an introspective time, but not exclusively so. Church, if we spent even half as much time talking about Tom Palermo and his family and the cycling community, we would have a wider sense not only of “what this means for the Church” but what this means for the world beyond the Church, the world about which God is as much concerned as ours.
Get as curious about Tom Palermo’s life as we’ve been about Bishop Cook’s. Hear the anger of the cycling community and do not correct it. Simply hear the grief the cycling community at the death of a kind man who learned how to build bike frames and commuted to work daily by bike. Feel the daily anxiety of bike commuters. Palermo was killed on a stretch of wide road with bike lanes, a road considered very safe in North Baltimore; Use your pastoral imagination to wonder how unsafe other cyclists are feeling after his death. Hear the anger of cyclists who learned of Palermo being left to die at the scene of the crime. Imagine what perception of the institutional Church the cycling community has after this tragedy. Hear the disappointment of cyclists that, in the words of Bicycling magazine, “a supposedly moral pillar of the community” flees the scene of a dying man. Listen to the cyclists wondering if class, ecclesial, and white privilege factored into the time delay between the accident and the arrest.
Learn about the ritual tradition among cyclists of memorial “Ghost Bikes,” roadside shrines of white bikes placed at the site of a cyclist’s death. Visit a Ghost Bike memorial, stand with fear and trembling with your car keys and cell phone in your hand and vow before that memorial to the dead you will never drive distracted. Include prayers for the safety of vulnerable road users in your prayers of the people and prayer of confession for distracted drivers. Ask the cyclists in your parish how safe they feel on the road. Send a note of condolences to your local cycling advocacy group or bike shop. Advocate for safer road policies for cyclists.
On the way out of my apartment, as I take out my bicycle each day, I pass a small icon of Madonna Del Ghisallo, the patron saint of cyclists. It’s dangerous out there on the road in the door zone, and not all vehicles are of the same weight. If I’m hit by a car while on my bicycle (as I was in 2007), odds are the bicycle and the cyclist will sustain far more damage than the car and driver. The larger vehicle bears more responsibility than the smaller, because they are more dangerous. As the Baltimore cycling advocacy group noted, a car is “a deadly weapon when wielded incorrectly.” For as much weight as we’ve given our thoughts on Bishop Cook, I ask you please, give as much consideration and conversation to what this all means for the Palermo family, the grieving cycling community, and your own responsibility as a motorist.