Last year I gave up my car for Lent. Giving things up for Lent is not a tradition I grew up with.

In high school, I would ask my Catholic friends, “How can you say you’re fasting when you’re eating shrimp, which is fancier food than you usually eat?” One of my friends explained she was just not allowed to eat meat. “The fish is dead,” I pointed out. “That’s not meat?” She wasn’t sure either, so we chalked it up to our parents telling us things we didn’t understand.

As an adult, I still discuss faith traditions with friends – in a more thoughtful way, I hope. I try to distinguish between what I want to ask merely because I’m curious and what would create peaceful friendships through better understanding.

Last year a Catholic friend and I revisited the question. She said not eating meat on Friday, a suggested practice in Catholicism, served as a starting point, an open door for believers to move closer to God, and guidance to get started in a more contemplative direction. We agreed that we are fortunate to live in a place where giving something up still means having more than most people in the world, and concluded that outward rituals only took on meaning to the individual who allowed the distractions to fall away in order to get closer to God. We didn’t give up anything material without getting something spiritual in return.

Those realizations are what ultimately led me to give up personal transportation for Lent – to receive blessings I could not get while driving my own car or catching rides with insistent friends who saw me at bus stops. It was a very long list from going car-free for 11 months in 2014. For years I had tried to supplement my own vehicle with bus transit days, because I believe many social ills are caused by society’s dependence on personal vehicles. I also wanted to stop contributing to the air pollution in our city. A misdiagnosed car problem catalyzed my launch into a planned one-year sabbatical from driving. Complete exhaustion, pelting sleet, and a long wait at a bus stop one night ended it 11 months later.

But after 11 months of commuting from my Southeastside residence on VIA Metropolitan Transit and taking weekly trips on the Veterans Administration shuttle from the Audie Murphy VA Hospital to Kerrville – a 14-hour roundtrip to visit my father from the time I caught the first VIA bus at 5 a.m. – there were some things I missed. The most obvious was the people. There were certain people I had gotten to know, who only took the bus. Would I ever see them again?

I thought about the VIA operator who drove 28 hours every weekend to see his wife and children because he couldn’t find a job in their agriculture-based hometown. The last time I rode with him, he told me he was moving home in hopes of finding work in flood relief. He had realized that he would not live to see his children grow up if he didn’t get some rest. I hoped that I would not see him again, because if I did it meant he had not been able to find work back home.

I thought about the thin, senior women who wore big hats to shade themselves from the sun at the bus stops. I never knew when one of them would board the bus I was on, but their presence always brought a smile to my face. More than anything, I missed speaking to the people who crossed my path every day.

Rachel Cywinski and her newly purple car. Credit: Courtsy / Rachel Cywinski

And so I started thinking seriously about whether it was time to take the plunge and draw some essential spiritual discipline – and many blessings – from Lent. There was one major obstacle that I could no longer avoid: during my 11-month sabbatical, I realized that I perpetually overcommitted to community activities. Even after I had familiarized myself with VIA’s schedule and service areas, I tried to maintain the same schedule I had had when I was with car. Relying on public transportation, I would leave one meeting early to go to another one, arrive late to the next one, and sometimes skip more important ones because I had not allocated enough time or was exhausted.

Going car-free again forced me to acknowledge that the problem was not so much my mode of transportation but my own decisions. For Lent, I would have to make some tough choices and cut certain activities. At one point I realized that while I live in the city I want to be in, I was still making decisions as though I lived in a small town. When someone asked me to go to a concert where I grew up or went to college, it was because it was the only concert for weeks at a time – so everyone went. In San Antonio, on the other hand, there are multiple concerts on any given day. I, therefore, gave myself permission to be more realistic, and gained confidence in going car-free for Lent.

An automotive repair technology instructor had asked if he could use my beat up car as the final project for his advanced class. I knew I would have to make do without my car for several months, but I had always wanted to change the color, so I grabbed my new 31-day VIA bus pass and a 600-page book that I had been nibbling at for months.

After five days on the bus, I was enthused about reading and had finished two books that had been sitting at home for months. I always admired people who were disciplined enough to read every minute and turned transit and waiting times into their own literary adventures. I admired the people on the Blanco bus route who used VIA’s WiFi to do work on their laptops. They once inspired me to visit a church across town and use the 90-minute ride each direction to send e-cards.

There was also a constant awareness that talking to people on the VIA buses held much more opportunity than keeping to oneself. During Lent particularly, it seemed more appropriate to focus on community. The environment in which I grew up hadn’t really taught me that faith was communal, not just personal. Reading the Bible made it clear that people were created to coexist with one other; reading it in Spanish enlightened me more than any sermon ever could. English translations often refer to entire congregations as “you,” which leads readers to mistake a plural for a singular.

Riding the bus was my own way of contributing to community by seeking the greater good as well as an improved transit system. But how was I really in community by riding the bus? The second week I resolved to get my nose out of my books and acknowledge the people around me. People started talking to me. I sought opportunities to encourage strangers, to tell parents when they were doing something good for their children, to seek areas of agreement, and make peace with other people whenever possible.

People began asking me to pray for them, and I always asked if I could first pray with them instead. I would say a simple prayer, holding the person’s hand or touching a shoulder or elbow lightly. Once I was about to get off the bus when a man asked me if we could pray together. Hesitant because I thought I would miss my stop, I reminded myself why I was there to begin with. I took the man’s hand. He was crying.

“Lord Jesus, please let him know that you are with him,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say. Everyone was quiet, and as I exited the bus another man touched my hand and thanked me for stopping to pray. As I stood in the dark at the bus stop and saw the passengers in the lighted bus continue on their journey, I knew that man was surrounded by people who cared about him, even if they were strangers. That is community – It’s not just about him, or me, or any one person.

My firmest resolve for the Lenten car-free sabbatical was to never, not even once, compare how much time it would have taken me to get to a place in my car to the bus transit time. It was a pointless exercise in frustration that I had occasionally indulged in during transit, even though I felt it was a false comparison. If I was going to take the bus, then I would be grateful for the blessing of a transit system everyone could use. If a potential passenger bombarded the driver with questions, I would thank God there were patient VIA employees. When there were situations that needed correction, I would be disciplined to appropriately address the issues with the right person to encourage improvement.

During the sabbatical, there were two VIA operators who persistently told me they could not let me board with my mobility assistance device. One of my goals for this Lenten sabbatical was to not write anyone off, but to be assertive and work toward opportunities for mutual understanding and improvement. This included a plan to address the few VIA operators who discriminate against people with mobility impairments if I encountered one.

When one operator threatened to leave me behind, I let him know (through closed doors) that I was recording our conversation. In one residential neighborhood near San Antonio College, people honked their horns and shouted at the driver to let me on the bus – The community resolved the problem. Another driver allowed all other passengers to come on board with their groceries, but told me I could not bring my groceries because I was using my mobility assistance device. I took a video and later presented it to the VIA trustees.

My car was not restored by Easter. I had prepared for this and told myself that patience was a spiritual gift that I needed to exercise. I knew the students had to finish the car by the end of the semester, and I hoped that their work on the car had blessed them as much as it had me. They had indeed smoothed out every ding and dent, sanded it, removed the rusted spots, and painted it a new color. While it was at the school, someone had tried to break into the car, causing some of the locks to malfunction. But after eight weeks of being present on the bus, that problem did not faze me.

I gave up my car for Lent last year and got it back looking better than before. I also gave up a schedule that was all about me. I got the opportunity to come closer to God by connecting with people around me.

I gave up my car, but I got a community.

Avatar photo

Rachel Cywinski

Rachel Cywinski lives in San Antonio because she wants to and advocates for a sustainable future.