The Right to Park and Pray

In the name of God, but with an eye to vengence, 11th century Christians raged against the Muslims of Western Europe.

In the year 1095, Pope Urban II told Christians, “Whoever for devotion alone, but not to gain honour or money, goes to Jerusalem to liberate the Church of God can substitute this journey for all penance,” according to History Today.

Admittedly, the Crusades were a bit bigger than the fight over church parking in the Mission District. But in our sleepy little San Franciscan way, a secular sect of Missionites is moving to “liberate” parking along Dolores Street from what remains of the city’s Church of God.

Those religious organizations — Cornerstone Church, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, Mission Dolores Parish, among others — say they need parking to ensure their far-flung congregations continue attending services.

The years-long war (dating back to 2013) over the divine right to park in the middle of the street during church is nearing its end. In August, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board of directors approved a pilot program essentially making the street-parking practice legal.

Churchgoers will be able to legally park on Dolores Street for the first time since street laws were laid in the city of St. Francis. And for just as many decades, the Police Department and local transit officials have turned the other cheek, so to speak.

It’s been illegal, but no one has given a damn.

Still, the anger against an apparent “violation” of divisions between church and state rages on. A recent SFMTA survey found that more than 60 percent of Mission residents didn’t believe churchgoers should be able to park there.

Poppycock, say the secular urbanites. These lovers of buses, these bike believers, these enemies of all things parking — they aren’t letting that fly without a fight.

That rage is now seeing its last gasp, as local consultant Ryan Shanabarger is leading a one-man charge to ensure every illegal parker is ticketed before the pilot begins.

“I’ve had one near-accident myself in the affected area and have witnessed a near-accident,” he says, as motivation for his holy war.

Shanabarger started a Twitter handle, @SFparkingWatch, to catalogue his efforts to find heathens parking in the street. He even live-streamed it. There, on Aug. 26, via Periscope, Shanabarger narrates the various parking sins.

“Sixteenth and Dolores,” he says, with an air of the dramatic, “this black car sitting beneath a palm tree is our very first illegal parker.”

He crosses the street, and circles the small sedan.

“On this side you can see they’ve put out an illegal traffic control device!” he exclaims.

(It’s an orange traffic cone.)

Almost like a man on safari in the Sahara, Shanabarger recounts details of the parker: She’s female, perhaps in her mid-50s, Caucasian. She isn’t attending church, per se, but temple, at the nearby congregation Sha’ar Zahav.

“Were you unable to find parking anywhere else?” he asks her. “Not on Friday nights,” she says.

He becomes incensed. “I called the police,” he tells her.

But alas, the police were more apt to honor the church tradition.

Technically, the person responding to the call is an SFMTA parking control officer, noted by the light blue shirt and SFMTA patch on his shoulder.

“We actually don’t really cite people on this spot,” the PCO tells Shanabarger. “We give courtesy for people because they’re doing services for the church.”

No help there. And, indeed, there was also no help for Shanabarger’s stab at nailing scofflaws Sunday morning for church services. No one showed up.

Too many “scheduling conflicts,” he tells SF Weekly, though the amorphous and unconfirmed they may try a later date. In the end, Shanabarger was alone.

Shanabager getting stood up echoed the last gasp of the secular opposition to church parking at the SFMTA’s meeting in early August.

For nearly a year, SFMTA planner John Knox White channeled his inner saint and brokered peace between Mission church leaders and the secular neighbors who opposed their parking habits. At the outset, the opposing sides agreed that any plan concocted between the groups would need five votes of the majority to gain official SFMTA backing.

In the end, the secular neighbors came up short, voting by a majority of four to ban the church parking outright. So SFMTA staff presented the pilot legalizing the plan to their board, who approved it.

At that meeting, streams of religious neighbors — churchgoers, church leaders, and more — packed the SFMTA board room and defended their right to park and pray. During the meeting, a community member who served in the “compromise group” named Elizabeth Zitrin became enraged.

“It’s an illegitimate process that did not allow the members of the committee to be heard,” she shouted during public comment. She spun on her heels shouting “and you know it!” at Knox White, with one finger pointed straight at the mild-mannered planner’s nose.

It was too late. No rage, no matter how righteous, would change the outcome.

Shanabarger, Zitrin, and other secular opponents forgot one lesson taught by the Crusades: The Christians came in numbers.

And the parking-opposed urbanites came up woefully short.

That’s probably just as well, the churchgoers say. For as long as there’s been a city named after St. Francis here, and even longer, Mission Dolores Church has relied on parking along Dolores Street for its parishioners.

Back then it was horses; now it’s cars.

It’s the city’s oldest building, and also home to the city’s longest-running parking scofflaws. Now, they’re finally legal.

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