Our church is in a tough neighborhood, and every once in awhile I get asked whether I am concerned for my safety at Holy Trinity. I usually respond with some combination of the following:
- We know our neighbors, and they know us. When I walk around the neighborhood during the day, I exchange greetings with people I know. I make a point of acknowledging people I don’t know with a nod and smile so that they know I mean them well (without suspecting that I want something from them!). No, I don’t feel unsafe.
- After dark, N. Olive is both well-traveled and brightly lighted, so I’m unlikely to be mugged on the way to the car that I park under a street light. I park there, by the way, because that’s the furthest point from either of the two main doors, and I want to leave the closer parking spaces open for those with less mobility. No, I don’t feel unsafe.
- Yes, we have had car mirrors knocked off by speeding cars and windows shot out by BB guns, same as folks in many different types of neighborhhod. Looks like there are reckless people everywhere. No, I don’t feel unsafe.
I should note at this point that I’m not quite as stupid as I look. I do keep the doors locked when I’m at the church alone. If I need to meet with one other individual, I arrange to do so in a public space or at the diocesan office where there will be other people around. I do not allow children into the building when I am the only adult present—even when this means having mass on the front sidewalk! I should note, however, that these are steps I would advise any parish priest to follow, as much for the safety of others as for the safety of the priest.
Last Thursday was unusual, though. It was Maundy Thursday, and earlier in the day I was making pastoral visits. One of the elderly gentlemen I was visiting asked me whether I was concerned for my personal safety at Holy Trinity. I responded as I have indicated above.
That night, as everyone else left after the service, I stayed around to set some things in order and then to pray at the Altar of Repose. As I was going around turning out the lights afterwards, I remembered the earlier conversation and smiled to myself. There I was, alone in the building late at night, and I did not feel unsafe.
I walked to my car, got in, and started to drive home. I needed to turn left onto Prast, but someone on Prast was pulled over too far into the middle of the street. I swung wide to get around the other car, misjudged the location of the curb, and blew out my tire. I sighed deeply, pulled over at the corner of Prast and Elmer, and pulled out my AAA card.
Are you in a safe location? The voice on the other end of my phone call asked me? They always ask that. I thought about it. I was in my in my car at a lighted street corner. I could walk back to the church if I needed to. I had just called my husband to let him know I would be late. He was coming to sit with me. “Yes, I’m in a safe location,” I replied.
When the roadside assistance guy arrived around 9:45pm to change my tire, he remarked, “you sure picked an uncomfortable spot to have a flat tire!” I noted that I was the priest of a church a block away, that I knew my neighbors, and that I did not feel unsafe. He just shrugged and said he had moved out of the neighborhood because “I know what goes down here.” I didn’t argue with him—it had been a long day.
Then, this morning, I was driving to the church to pick up something I needed. It was broad daylight, and I was driving down Lincoln Way West. The pavement was wet, and I’m still driving on my spare tire, so I was careful to drive the speed limit. The white guy in the late model SUV behind me did not appreciate that. He tailgated me for several blocks, and when I slowed to a stop at a yellow light rather than speed up to go through, he screeched to a stop behind me and was waving his hands at me. When I gestured to the light, he started shouting and kept waving his hands.
At that point I did something stupid. Wanting to shame him with the knowledge that it was a priest he was harassing, I got out of my car and went to his window. He rolled it down so he could shout in my face. I said to him, “I was driving the speed limit and stopping for a red light. Get the F— off my tail!” I then turned around and returned to my car. Probably not one of my more pastoral moments.
The light had turned green, so I started my car and continued down the street. The guy sped up close behind me, then swerved around me to pass me on the left—where there was no lane. I slowed down, to put some distance between us, then realized I should get his license plate number. I took out my phone to take a picture. I’m assuming he saw me, because when the traffic light at Olive turned red, he pulled over into a parking spot on the right side of the road so that I did not pull up behind him. I assumed we were done.
I pulled into the left turn lane to go to the church. Suddenly he crossed into the left lane behind me. At this point, I did not feel safe. I started to weigh the options of parking where I normally park or of pulling up to the convenience store across from the church. At the church I might hope for a neighbor passing by. At the store, I am known to the Muslim owner and manager, and there are video cameras, so I figured I’d be safe if this guy decided to menace me. As it was, he did not follow me through the turn but instead swerved back into the main line of traffic. I was safe once more.
How ironic that the one time I felt unsafe in the neighborhood around Holy Trinity, the cause of my anxiety was a white guy who had followed me into the neighborhood from a “better” part of town! Thanks be to God for neighbors around the church upon whom I could rely in a moment of danger! And next, time, may God give me the wisdom to stay in my car and keep my mouth shut.