Finding God

Finding God
On the pathway to Petra

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Meeting

This path looks like a dead end
Bermuda Botanical Gardens
Light rail proponents brought their big guns and a Powerpoint presentation to the February 2017 meeting with Aldersgate, or so it seemed. My memory is that there were about ten of them, including representatives from the Town of Chapel Hill.  Most Aldersgate members and constituents came, a “crowd” of about 25.

Here are my memories of the meeting:

The transit folks were both serious and soothing. They said, in essence: Assuming the pieces fall in place for funding, light rail is coming, and it’s coming very close to your church building. There is nothing you can do to stop it, but we will help to mitigate its impact by rebuilding the steps of your sanctuary. Light rail cannot cross to the other side of Fordham until after it passes in front of your building because it would impact the N.C. Botanical Gardens, and federal law prohibits that.  They said: light rail is a good thing, a progressive thing, something our area needs desperately, according to our research.  They said that right now, our area must depend on overloaded buses.

“What overloaded buses?,” one church member demanded. “All the buses we see running between Durham and Chapel Hill are half-empty!”  Certainly, the free buses that run all over Chapel Hill can be full at times – but these buses don’t go to Durham.

One church member pointed out that if light rail were moved to the other side of Fordham, it would only impact the Botanical Garden’s gravel parking lot. It didn’t matter, we were told. Federal law prohibits it if there is a reasonable alternative. Apparently the front yard of a small church is a reasonable alternative.

Church members asked: What about Fern Avenue being relocated? That’s not what you told us last time we met with you!

Transit people denied having said anything different, and replied: The piers for light rail will go into the ground where Fern Avenue is currently located. Fern Avenue will be moved closer to the church building, impacting the front steps. But we will rebuild your steps off to both sides and install an attractive vegetative barrier between the sanctuary and the light rail. They showed us an artist’s drawing of this.

Several church members pointed out the town had required Aldersgate to significantly set back its new sanctuary from Fern Avenue. Light rail was about to violate the town’s own rule about set-back distance!  Apparently, that was okay.

What about the church’s playground?, other members asked. What parent in their right mind would bring a child to a preschool whose playground was mere yards from heavy construction? The transit team replied, “Preschoolers like to watch heavy equipment!”  This off-hand comment ratcheted up the congregational anger growing in the room. 

An Aldersgate member addressed the person representing the Town of Chapel Hill and asked, “If you’ve known about light rail all along, why didn’t you warn us about it when we were seeking the (expensive and time-consuming) permits for our new sanctuary?”  The man had no answer, and church anger began to overflow. The meeting threatened to degenerate into a shouting match.

I wanted to prevent this, so I stood and said to the light rail people: “I think what you are hearing is the grief and anger of this church because we feel construction of the light rail is going to mean the end of this church and our preschool.”  The room grew quiet, and the transit people had no reply.

The meeting ended on neither a positive nor totally negative note.  It convinced some members to actively fight the possibility of light rail. Others believed there was nothing to be done but wait and hope the funding fell through. Some members felt that all would be fine if the church got the sideways steps and vegetative barrier.

My take-away from the meeting was this: These people are hell-bent on having light rail. 

Friday, May 26, 2017

I'm Not Much Liking This Path

Path through mangroves-- I wonder if there are snakes in the trees?
Sanibel Island, Fla
My first reaction to realizing the impact the proposed elevated light rail would have on Aldersgate was to fire off an email to the congregation, giving them the link to Triangle Transit’s virtual tour and encouraging them to write, phone, or email their county commissioners, whose contact information I had found on the Internet.

Immediately, I encountered the obstacle so common in congregations composed of older members, even in tech-saavy Chapel Hill. Many folks seemed unable to click on the link and watch the virtual tour.  Perhaps their computer systems were too antiquated to run it. Or maybe they didn’t want to see it, or perhaps they didn’t know what a virtual tour was, or they thought their computer would get a virus. Who knows? Very few people watched it, although I did hear a lot of, “Pastor, I couldn’t figure out how to do that.”

One person told me I was exaggerating when I said in my email that the light rail was going to come “right through the church’s front yard.”  I discovered Aldersgate had met more than a year ago with Triangle Transit, who told them the train was going to run well away from the church building, in the grassy median between Fordham (Hwy. 15-501) and Fern Aveune. That was Aldersgate's understanding, anyway.

“That’s not what the virtual tour indicates,” I replied to the man. The virtual tour says Fern Avenue will be relocated. When he finally watched the virtual tour, he was outraged – this was NOT what the church had been told! Meanwhile, I called the public liaison person at Triangle Transit, and she answered some of my questions.

She admitted that yes, light rail is planned to come very close to our church building; in fact, it is going to destroy some of the sanctuary’s front steps. But Triangle Transit would commit to rebuilding those steps in a sideways direction. Fern Avenue, the narrow street that provides access to the church building, will always be open to traffic, even if it’s only one lane, she told me.

I tried to imagine what that would look like – orange barrels, dirt road, construction debris, giant beeping trucks, and monstrous piers to hold up an elevated train. The train, incidentally, will run every 15 minutes, and will be about the same height as the church’s front entrance, which is 18 steep brick steps high, facing Fordham.

“Your church has a strange architectural design,” the woman told me, implying that having to climb 18 steep bricks steps was an odd way to welcome people in through a church’s front door.  I gnashed my teeth.  I was not the pastor of Aldersgate when the new sanctuary was built several years ago, but I had been on the district committee that supposedly oversaw the architectural design of the new sanctuary. The committee had expressed the same concern, among others. Somehow the new sanctuary got built anyway without corrections. Eighteen steep brick steps were, in fact, a major design flaw. Just try getting a casket up or down those steps, I wanted to scream.
Instead, I took a deep breath and pointed out that the proposed elevated light rail was crossing Fordham immediately after it passed within feet of Aldersgate so it would not impact the campus of our large next-door-neighbor, St. Thomas More Catholic Church and school.

“Can’t you have it cross Fordham a bit earlier so it doesn’t impact us so much?” I asked. No, she said, that would make it impact the N.C. Botanical Gardens directly across the street from Aldersgate, and federal law prevents that.

“We’d like to come out and meet with your church and explain everything,” the woman said soothingly. “When would be a good day?” So we set an afternoon date about two weeks in the future.

Our path forward was about to get complicated.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Is Our Path Blocked?

Magnolia Plantation, Charleston, S.C.
The challenging path which we lately travel, the church and I, began like so many “ministry by the gut” moments, with a subtle feeling of unease.  Keith and I hosted a New Year’s Eve party less than five months ago, and one of our guests (married to one of Keith’s golfing buddies) was a Durham County commissioner. I heard her talking about the Durham-Orange Light Rail plans, so I eased my way into the conversation and said something to the effect, “Not everyone supports the current path planned for the Light Rail. Running between two hospitals doesn’t seem as smart as, say, running it out to the airport or to RTP. And it’s incredibly expensive.”  

“It has to start somewhere,” she said.  “It will eventually expand to RTP.”  I don’t recall what else she said, only that she made me feel, well, dismissed, even though I had expressed valid concerns.  

“I think it’s supposed to run right in front of the church I serve in Chapel Hill,” I told her.  One member had told me about how ugly the elevated rail would look, blocking the front of the church. This led to further dismissal – I was talking about Chapel Hill, which is Orange County, not Durham County. 

Oh, well, it was a party, so I moved on to other conversations. But my encounter with her made me feel mildly uneasy, and I’ve learned to trust that little twisty gut feeling.

Isn't it odd that the conversation with the county commissioner -- rather than the conversation with the church member who was concerned about the ugly appearance of an elevated train -- was what spurred my unease? I think it's because the conversation with the county commissioner made the possibility of Light Rail real to me for the first time. 

In early January, I did an Internet search of the Durham-Orange Light Rail. It led me to the web page for Triangle Transit (“Our Transit Future”), which has a link to a virtual tour of the proposed project.  As I watched the virtual tour, I got my first gut punch. Looking unattractive and blocking the view of the church was the least of it – construction of the elevated rail called for the “proposed street relocation” of Fern Avenue, the narrow road that provides the ONLY access into Aldersgate’s building without driving miles on twisty, hilly, residential streets that even I haven’t figured out.  I knew what that meant for a small group of senior citizens who sometimes won’t come to church if snow threatens or it’s raining.

Construction was due to begin in three years, and a construction zone would mean the end of the church.  Why was no one talking about this?

Take the virtual tour yourself; you may have to copy and paste the link into your browser.