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Tragedy in Maryland

There has been much written about the tragic event in the Diocese of Maryland on December 27. On that day, the bishop suffragan, Heather Cook, while driving and allegedly intoxicated and texting on a mobile device, struck a cyclist, Thomas Palermo. I have been, thus far, able to resist adding to the avalanche of words. However, I have found myself profoundly affected by this horrible event. A husband and father is dead. A bishop is charged, arrested and now in rehab in prison as she awaits trial. A diocese is reeling.

It is abundantly clear that our church will reevaluate its calling processes in light of this event. Bishops and all clergy in our church, and I imagine other denominations, will receive much greater scrutiny. However, I wonder what should be our contemplation. What should be our confession and amendment of life? In particular, I ponder our relationship with the three contributing factors in this matter: motorized vehicles, alcohol, and mobile communication.

As most of you know, I run and walk a fair amount. Over the last couple of weeks, I have been more observant of motorists’ driving habits. Most of the time when people come to stop signs, they do not fully stop. Indeed, some people are rather reckless in their haste. Add this to speeding, changing lanes too closely, and other behaviors, and it is remarkable that there are not more injuries and deaths on the highway. Comparisons of gun deaths to automobile deaths are often used to underscore the need for gun control. But the reality is that, in the majority of the U.S., more people die in automobile accidents than because of a gun.* Automobiles can be deadly. We forget when we drive a car that we are propelling thousands of pounds of metal, glass, plastic, and rubber at high speed. The laws of physics will not suspend when we are in a hurry or inattentive. My confession to you is that I have too often put my own schedule and priorities above safety. My amendment of life is to exercise a renewed caution while driving. My highest priority must be to others and to care for myself.

Thirty-one percent of the automobile fatalities in the U.S. are related to alcohol. In spite of this, and a whole host of other damage done to individuals and families by alcohol abuse, our culture continues to be alcohol-focused in social interactions: beer at ball games, champagne at New Year’s, etc. As Episcopalians, we have fully bought into that. Historically, we have tended to differentiate ourselves by our drinking: whenever two or three are gathered together, there is a “fifth.” It is time to deeply consider our relationship to alcohol, not in some sort of prudish way, but in a way that strongly asserts moderation and confronts, out of love, behavior that is harmful. My confession to you is that I have been complicit in a culture that promotes alcohol consumption. We are going to reevaluate how, and if, we serve alcohol at diocesan events. In addition, I am going to look into ways that the clergy members of the diocese can practice health and well-being in their alcohol use, including intervening where there are problems.

Living in the age of data phones, email, and texting, and the use of mobile devices while driving, has become a significant safety issue. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention includes texting as one of many actions while driving that is considered “distracted driving.” One fifth of all U.S. auto fatalities include distracted driving as a contributing factor. Again, why are we so busy that we must multi-task? What makes us think that what we are doing is more important than our own lives and the lives of those around us? I suggest that our promise to respect the dignity of every human being requires that, when undertaking the great responsibility of moving a car at high speed, we give it our fullest attention. My confession is that I have done things while driving that are distracting to me and thus, dangerous. My amendment of life is to change this behavior. In particular, I need to reevaluate the way I talk on the phone while driving. There is no question that, while lawful, the whole exercise of making and executing phone calls is distracting. As your bishop, I should let voicemail do the work while driving and let driving be my singular work.

This reflection is open-ended for me. I hope it serves as an invitation for conversation within our clergy community, and our wider church community. The Maryland event should change us. Our relationship to Jesus as the one who comes to show us the way, the truth, and the life, is an invitation to change and transformation. That is why I come to you at this time with a posture of personal and inward reflection, confession, and “with God’s help” and yours, a life more on the way of Jesus. In this time, we are called to a greater sense of self-awareness and to evaluate our own behavior and congregational practices. Will you join me in this movement?

Please pray for the Palermo family, the Diocese of Maryland, and Bishop Cook. Let us pray for healing, peace and reconciliation.

Peace and gentle days be with you.

* Dorothy J. Samuels, “Gun Deaths Versus Car Deaths” New York Times, July 16, 2014, http://takingnote.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/07/16/gun-deaths-versus-car-deaths/?_r=0

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