by Rev. Brent Wright
I’m excited because this autumn voters in our city have a rare opportunity to invest in Indy’s transportation system. The Indy Connect coalition has spent years studying our city’s needs and has crafted a comprehensive five-year plan to guide the major expansion we need.
In November, we get to decide to work together, each doing our part for our collective good. As the community considers paying for a significant expansion to our city’s bus service, many clergy, laypeople, and congregations from across the spectrum of Indy’s faith community are getting involved in the effort because it’s the right thing to do.
Indy Congregation Action Network (IndyCAN) a nonpartisan, multi-ethnic organization that includes more than 35 faith communities, is leading the way. We’re committed to inclusion, equity, and family unity as we help develop people of faith at the grassroots level into leaders who can achieve power for positive change.
Through one IndyCAN initiative called Ticket to Opportunity: Fair transit for a stronger Indy, the faith community is lifting up the moral dimension of improved transportation access. We all know transit is an economic matter. But a moral one? My colleague, the Rev. Darren Cushman Wood of North United Methodist Church, says, “We often talk about doing right by our neighbors. It’s rare that we get to put that to a vote.”
It’s easy for me—and nearly everyone I know—to be unaware of our public transportation system. Other than occasionally stopping next to a bus at a light, and maybe feeling a flash of gratitude for the comfort of my car, transit isn’t on my mind. It doesn’t seem like our public transit system affects my life.
But lately, I’ve been reminded otherwise. One day, I learned that two women who have been bright lights in our family’s life had left their jobs at the daycare that has helped raise our children. Sisters LaVett and Lorena Forte are excellent caregivers and preschool teachers, and they both affected our children in very positive ways. They loved their work and had been dependable employees at the school. Unable to afford a car, they rode the bus across town to work. Commuting via bus was no picnic; because of the sparse schedule and route structure of the current system, what would be a 20-minute drive took them nearly two hours each way on three different buses. These committed women were up at 4 a.m. to get to work, and they weren’t back home until 7 p.m. Sometimes it was even later; if they were delayed leaving work, infrequent bus service meant waiting another hour for the next bus.
This was a cost they were willing to pay for steady work that they loved—and we loved them for doing it so well. The last straw came when the bus route changed, and now the end of the 2-hour commute became a 15-minute walk in the elements along a major street with no sidewalk. It was just too much, and they had to quit their solid jobs.
I don’t blame them. I’ve never had to work that hard just to get to work.
The Forte sisters are a glimpse at the cost we all bear for an outdated mass transit system and inadequate pedestrian infrastructure. All over Indianapolis, there are dedicated folks who are eager to work but unable to reach the good jobs they need. There are employers who lose great employees because they can’t get to work reliably. Other employers find the workers they need but transportation problems prevent the match. We’re all losing out on the benefit our neighbors have to offer through their skills and hard work.
A 2012 Brookings study [PDF] found that only 31.0 to 38.4 percent of Indy workers are within a 90-minute commute on public transit to jobs. That’s a system that doesn’t work for workers or employers.
And it’s not just laborers who depend on our public transportation. Our mass transit system serves a wide range of our neighbors: seniors, people unable to afford a car, those who don’t want to own a car, those physically or legally unable to drive, those with developmental disabilities, students too young to drive, and others.
Our Creator has woven all people together as one body, and every religious tradition upholds the truth that Christian scripture expresses this way: “If one member [of the body] suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” Underneath the appearance that we are all separate individuals is the spiritual truth that we are all connected. Humanity is a single body, every part interdependent.
That means what’s good for my neighbor is what’s good for me. And when my neighbor is struggling, I am struggling—no matter how comfortable I may be. When my neighbor suffers the indignity of prejudice, my spirit shrinks. When my neighbor is defeated by a system that seems to be stacked against her, my spirit is oppressed by my participation in that system. When my neighbor is exhausted by the challenge of commuting on an outdated and inadequate transit system, my spirit cannot soar.
Conversely, when my neighbor has the same access to the economic dignity of a good job that I do, everyone in my neighborhood benefits. When bus-riding mothers and fathers are able to spend as much time with their children at the end of the workday as I do with mine, all our families are stronger. When all the citizens of our city have the same opportunities to climb the economic ladder, we are living up to the values we hold dear.
We’re a community that values personal responsibility and economic self-sufficiency. We value work and want everyone to have enough. We value families and stability for our community’s children. We value dignity and opportunity for all. Building our robust public transit system is a way of making all of these values concrete.
I believe we are a community of rich abundance; together, we have all that we need. Sometimes, it can be difficult to remember this deep truth. Our shared Jewish and Christian scripture shows us the way to know this abundance: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. . . . Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” When we live generously toward one another, we are reminded of the abundance that is already present in this city. We are reminded that there is enough for all.
Harvard’s ongoing study The Equality of Opportunity finds that access to transit is the key path to escaping poverty. Building access to schools and jobs is at the heart of how we can all work together to provide equal opportunity to climb the economic ladder. When we pool our resources to give our neighbors most in need better access to the work they seek, we are investing in our deepest values to build a fairer city.
Another colleague, Rev. Steve Conger of Meridian Street United Methodist Church, says, “To fail to stand up for injustices would be negligent as Christians. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the course of the growth of Indy and I don’t want to sit on the sidelines.”
This fall, when Rev. Cushman, Rev. Conger, and I, along with our IndyCAN allies, cast our YES votes on Question #2 on the ballot, we will be doing so alongside thousands more who are ready and willing to do their part for the good of our city. Won’t you join us?
Rev. Brent Wright is pastor of Broad Ripple United Methodist Church and a member of the clergy council of the Indianapolis Congregational Action Network (IndyCAN).