Community and commuting

Community and commuting
Yesterday, we visited some dear friends who live in the suburbs south of Seattle. Through dinner conversation, we found out that the mother of two daughters commutes an hour and a half each way through traffic to go work, while the father commutes to class two and a half hours away, and preaches at a church on Sundays over an hour away. I was glad to hear it was only temporary.

But it brings up a larger question. At a conference last weekend, Prof. Mark Lau Branson asked, “Is commuting Gospel-neutral?” According to 2003 census figures, the average American commutes 24.3 minutes one-way, losing about 100 hours a year to traffic. Extreme commuting — where a one-way trip lasts over 90 minutes — is on the rise. Branson said that we choose to move on basically two motives: work or taste. And it seems these motives go basically unchallenged, with more people willing to endure longer commute times to purchase larger, newer homes. In Florida, it’s now a science: for $12,000 less, potential home buyers will endure 15 minutes more of traffic. The discount must be much higher for a Californian.

But what if we moved according to something else, perhaps a value like community? The Bible says that Jesus “moved into the neighborhood.” What if he didn’t move in, but just commuted? How would he get 12 students into his minivan? Would he have gotten to know the Samaritan Woman if he cruised by in his Civic Hybrid? But more seriously, moving in meant he would get to know us, and we would get to know him. He viscerally felt our loves, pains, hopes, passions and sorrows. And we saw his heart break with compassion and his tears flow for his friends. He taught us a better way to live, and his words had weight because we saw that he lived them out. We wanted his life, because we saw it up close. If he commuted, we would only see his public life, but never get to know his private life — we would’ve never gotten to know him. Thus, when God stopped commuting and moved in 2,000 years ago, we were given the chance to know Jesus and he changed the world.

Back in Cambridge, Jinhee and I lived within a mile and a half of our work, our church and most of our local friends. Life like this can happen in the Boston area, and we remember it fondly. Our front door faced another couple’s front door three feet away, and it was nice to bang on the door at 10:30p to say we had just gotten into a fight, and for them to say, “that’s normal.” Community life, even with less space, felt more full, more complete.

But sometimes, it’s just too expensive to put community first. Housing prices have soared throughout the country. But what if we co-owned a multi-unit home, and moved in with friends? What if we committed to living within walking distance to our friends and church?

Now, who knows where Jinhee and I will be in the future? We may even end up with a long commute one day. But we hope not. Yesterday, I told Jinhee that we’ll live close to whatever campus she ends up working at in the years to come, which means we may still move because of work. But in the next place we end up, I hope we’re near friends — both old and new. And I hope we stay there for a long time, so our children will have a home and we can watch our neighbors’ newborns go to college. We want to grow some roots, long and deep into community soil though everything else around us might shift. And long roots might take time, but I think that not only will we bless others, but we will find ourselves nourished as well.