"Reserved for clergy."
That's what the sign reads outside Judson Memorial Baptist Church in Minneapolis' Kingfield neighborhood. The sign isn't on a parking space. It's on a bike rack.
The church's pastor, the Rev. G. Travis Norvell, sold his car in 2013, after a sermon he gave prompted a question from his daughter: "Dad, what are you willing to sacrifice so that others can have more joy?"
While he initially considered giving up a car a sacrifice, Norvell said his decision to bike, walk or take the bus to work — even during Minnesota winters — ended up being a joy. In his new book, "A Church on the Move," he shares how getting out of his car changed his ministry and helped him see a path forward for shrinking parishes. (A celebration of the book, including a group bike ride, is planned for 4 p.m. on May 22 at his church.)
Norvell, who tweets as @pedalingpastor, has also become part of the morning radio experience for MPR News listeners.
During a recent walk with Norvell, he talked about his passion for riding, writing bike blessings and his book, which includes recipes like 100 Mile Granola and Church Plaza Pizza. The conversation has been edited for clarity and space.
Q: How does biking or taking public transit build community for you?
A: I grew up in a really small town in West Virginia, so I always wanted to be around people. When people, for their vacations, go camping, I would be like, "Why are you going camping? Go to the city!"
In a car, you're just by yourself. I mean, I'm lonely enough already. Biking can be a solitary thing, but the opportunity to be present with somebody — even if it's just for a few seconds — is greater than in a car.
I'm one of the slowest bicyclists in Minneapolis. So I rarely go over 10 miles an hour, but I'm able to see everybody on a human level, which enables me to be more present. And on a bus, all of a sudden you're just with these people for maybe a few blocks or maybe a mile and these little communities start.
Q: Has your going carless influenced others to give up driving? If so, how did you convince them?
A: The climatologist Katharine Hayhoe has a book called "Saving Us," and it's about how faith and climate change action are united. She has this little line in there about shame and guilt. You can't guilt anybody into doing anything. Or shame them into it. Your best option is to offer people a viable option.
I realized that because of my own religious history — shame and guilt and all that stuff — I didn't want to ever project that onto anyone else. I always just say, "Hey, this is my experiment."
But my daughter, she started biking first, and my son followed. And then Lori [Norvell's wife] was just just like, "OK, I'm gonna do it." And then my youngest son, he's in high school, and he's started. So in my nuclear family it kind of took off.
And then at church, there's been a couple of Sundays where I've gone out, and we have eight biking [parking] spots, and they've all been taken. And then like four people took the bus. You can almost feel like it's going to really happen.
Q: How did you end up convincing MPR News to include report on biking conditions weekday mornings?
A: On Twitter, there's a lot of people that complain. Which I get, it's a good forum for that. But I was like, "OK, what's one small thing that I could do?" When [host] Cathy Wurzer would say, "This semitruck is jackknifed," things like that, my first response was to complain, and say "Why aren't you giving things other than [just for car commuters]?" But I just said, "What if I flipped this?" I asked her, "Well, if I gave you this [biking report], would you offer them?" And she said yes.
Q: How do you decide what fellow bikers should know each morning?
A: I've got like 30 seconds at most to describe the biking conditions in the Twin Cities. So I just started focusing on what is a general description of the conditions right now.
Q: Can you give me a recent example?
A: "It's the return of the frozen crud. And that thin layer of snow, be mindful because underneath it's all ice."
Q: How did you decide to write your book, "A Church on the Move"?
During the pandemic, I was really frustrated, [wondering] would there even be a church to come back to? A friend of mine said, "You know, you've got to just keep writing. You've got to do something right now." So I finished it during the pandemic, and then it gave me a little more hope.
Q: How did you come to believe that the greater loss for your church wasn't a shrinking membership, but an undervalued connection to your neighborhood?
A: I think small churches have a really integral part in people's lives — as far as just being a place to learn how to be human being in a difficult context. So my thought was: "OK, so we're going to be small. Let's just be intentional about it."
If you think of a car, it enables you to think boundary-less. But if you're just biking, or walking or taking public transit, it makes you think really local. What about trying to be a really strong, local community? We're never going to be back to what it was in the 1950s, when [membership] went from 1,200 and started to decline [to 150-175 today]. We're never going to get back to that, and I don't know if I'd want that.
Q: How did your church's celebration of St. Francis come to be a blessing of "Beasts, Backpacks and Bikes"?
A: On the feast day of St. Francis, we would do a pet blessing, and those services always made me really nervous, just because you get a wide variety of animals and there's no control at all. We always did them inside, and I said, "Look, let's please do this outside."
So we moved outside, and I was like, well, let's just do everything. So it's kind of fun. People bring their pets by, and kids bring their backpacks, and then people on their bikes ride up and we do a blessing. This year, during Open Streets Lyndale, we set up a tent and people would come by.
Q: Did you come up with your own bike blessing? Do you mind sharing it?
A: Yes, I love writing bike blessings:
May your wheels always spin true
May your brakes always grab
May drivers always see you, and
May the smile only riding a bike can evoke
always remain on your face.