Parking, Free for All (?)

My church shares space with a secular preschool. It is a WONDERFUl school. As far as I know, it is the only co-op program in the valley. The parents camp out overnight for registration–I kid you not, like it’s Springsteen tickets–just to make sure their kids get in. It fosters a wonderful, warm sense of community in the ‘it takes a village’ sort of sense. They are great neighbors to have, not to mention, they have been a priceless asset to me as a mother of young children.


Our parking lot is not huge. And on a weekday morning during the school year, it gets full, quickly.  4 spots near the front of the lot say for ‘church parking’…but those signs also say a big mess of stuff on them. They are so jumbled looking that few people actually take the time to read them. The message is something to the effect of ‘this space reserved: weekdays for church staff and visitors; Sunday, for our guests!”

Yeah, nobody reads that. And if they do, all they do is see the word ‘visitor,’ and think… well, I”M a visitor… And there go our parking spots. We ask nicely. The preschool staff asks nicely. They leave notes. They send letters. Nobody cares. “I’m just going to run in for 5 minutes,’ they think. Not realizing it is the same 5 minutes of the day when church staff arrive…

Ok, I am heading somewhere spiritual with this. I remind myself that we are a people of hospitality. I remind myself what a privilege it is to drive a car, to have a job, to live in a free country. I challenge myself to dig into the deeper root of my frustration: like, the fact that way too many of our neighbors–even those who come onto our campus several times a week–simply do not recognize us as a real church, in the shadow of the giant down the road…

For all the larger existential struggles here, i keep coming back to this: A parking space is not sacred space, until it’s MY space, you know what I’m sayin?

I try to hold it all in balance with the bigger picture of what the parking sign–and many folks’ utter disregard for it–means in the broader life of ministry these days. We are welcoming and hospitable, and we are good stewards of our stuff: But does that mean we must be all things to all people? And if not, where do we draw the lines? The parking spot is not worth getting het up about…but then again, we have to do something about the neighbors (more than you would believe) who keep dumping their trashy old furniture in our parking lot (because, you know, they get mad when they come and find the dumpster locked.)  I mean, I definitely draw the line at the church serving as neighborhood landfill. But somewhere between littering, loitering, and TAKING MY PARKING SPACE, there is a gray area…

On vacation a few weeks ago, I was walking to the beach with my family. And about a block from the ocean, there sat this beautiful little Catholic church. And I thought, how lovely it would be to serve in this amazing little corner of creation.

As we got closer, my eye was drawn to this sign at the edge of the parking lot:

On the one hand, it’s a little off-putting. It pretty much says, go away unless we already know you. It also says ‘no’ a lot, which sends a pretty powerful message about what this church’s favorite word might be.

At the same time–it’s self-aware. It’s maybe supposed to be funny. (Though funnier would have been ‘thou shalt not roller blade…’) And most of all, it says, ‘we are a church, not a public parking lot.’

At some point, you have to say it out loud.

Anyway…my mixed reactions aside, this image captures that precarious point of balance: between being welcoming, and being the neighborhood door mat.  There’s no perfect way to communicate that struggle, but maybe Saint Michael’s by the Sea has a good start.

I recently found myself in a conversation about what ‘radical hospitality’ means. For me, it comes down to two simple trademarks. A community is radically hospitable when it:

1. Makes a point of living with hard questions, rather than marketing (and exploiting) easy answers. And

2. Is utterly willing to be transformed by the new people who come in; rather than demanding that those new folks conform to the current gathering in the pews.

That’s all I got. From those two small truths, many broader stories emerge… But in essence, these two traits live at the heart of the welcoming congregation, and the rest takes care of itself.

So…the church can put all its energy and resources into being polite and serving as that free-for-all parking lot. But in the end, perhaps our resources and priorities get a little misguided. We wind up far more concerned with maintenance and survival ministry, and miss entirely the larger purpose of our space–to build a true community of Christ, and welcome those who need something much deeper (and wider) than a corner of pavement.

While ‘my’ parking spot is a petty concern, the Church, in a much larger sense, does need to make clear to the local community what it Is, and what it Isn’t. If there are too many words on the sign, nobody reads it at all. Our message needs to be clear, concise, and intentional; otherwise, we are just taking up space.

Welcoming of all, yes. Neighborhood trash heap, no.

Free parking? Depends on where you are.

But if you don’t want to be the local skate park, then maybe you shouldn’t build your church on the beach. Just sayin… Context is everything, folks.


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  • James_Jarvis

    My dad a retired minister still has the sign someone made for his parking hanging in his office. You park, you preach.

  • Jim Olson

    You’re way over-thinking this. If parking is limited, post the spaces for the staff very clearly. If there are violators, post a clear notice on their car once. Keep records. Then tow. They’ll learn. It’s not inhospitable to ask people to follow the rules. If there is parking for the day care, make sure that is clearly marked as well.

  • SusanRogersStLaurent

    This is the way I feel when able-bodied people use the handicapped parking because they’re just running into Little Caesar’s.

  • Mark Anderson

    To broaden the context a bit further. In the St. Louis Business Journal the questioned was raised, “Should immigration laws be changed to allow citizenship for those in the country illegally?” A clear majority of respondents said no (80%). I thought this was striking after just moving into a house in a historic neighborhood in St. Louis. The houses have incredible brick work. I swear no two houses are the same! Come to discover this neighborhood, along with many of the surrounding neighborhoods, was built by German immigrants. St. Louis is truly a melting pot of many cultures with generations of immigrants from many lands. As our country debates immigration status of our neighbors who have made their homes in our country, I believe this question of hospitality is an interesting one for people of faith.