A new kind of bus stop

National | Cultural hostility to Christian speech may have reached its most absurd extreme: A Seattle bus driver, unhappy with two passengers' conversation about God, booted them. One of the two, a pregnant mother, in a hurry to get home to care for her two other children, had to walk nearly a mile alongside rush-hour traffic-in the rain. How it all happened will be the subject of litigation: She says she'll never stop talking about God, so unless something changes, her free-speech rights don't even merit a seat in the back of the bus.

Issue: "Not-so-smart bombs," April 24, 1999

in Seattle - Anyone driving the busy Bothell-Everett highway during the April 2 rush hour must have wondered about the woman walking on the shoulder. A driving rainstorm had just set in, sending temperatures plummeting and wreaking havoc with the evening commute all around Seattle. The lone woman stumbled along the unpaved shoulder, visibly (five months) pregnant, tottering on her thick rubber heels and clutching a thin gray jacket tight around her in a vain attempt to stay warm. But 25-year-old Michelle Shocks wasn't on the roadside that night because she likes walking in the rain. To hear her tell it, she was out there because she was a Christian. And she hadn't planned to walk home in that kind of weather. One minute she'd been on a city bus, telling a fellow passenger about her church. The next minute she was out there on the shoulder, trying to make sense of what had just happened to her. She'd been to the nearby city of Bellevue for an appointment that day. It was a Friday, and she was trying to get home in time to get her husband and two young children ready for church. At about 5:00 p.m., the boxy little white bus operated by Snohomish County Community Transit had pulled up to the shelter at the Bothell Park and Ride. Mrs. Shocks climbed aboard and sat down near the front, in one of the blue upholstered seats reserved for elderly, pregnant, or handicapped passengers. Several stops later, with the storm in full force, the bus stopped again and a new group of passengers got on, all complaining about the weather. "Praise the Lord!" said Kelly Smith, the last of the boarding passengers, as he got out of the rain and sat down opposite Mrs. Shocks. Sensing an opportunity, she says she began to talk across the aisle, asking the man if he had a church home. "Immediately he got really interested," she recalls. "He said he had gone to a lot of churches and he was disappointed because they were talking about philosophy or psychology, and he was really looking for a place that was full of the Word." Finding a church bulletin in her Bible, Mrs. Shocks tore the address out and handed it to Mr. Smith. He promised to visit, saying that he felt worn down by the proselytizing of some Jehovah's Witnesses who had been talking to him lately. Mrs. Shocks agreed that the Jehovah's Witnesses misrepresented the deity of Christ. And that, she says, was as far as she got. "Immediately I heard the bus driver say to me, 'Ma'am, could you please come to the front of the bus.'" Mrs. Shocks says she approached the driver, thinking the woman was going to tell her about her upcoming stop. Instead, she says, the driver told her to stop talking about her faith. "It may be offensive to some of my riders who cannot get away from your conversation, so you're going to have to stop talking about that," is how she recalls the bus driver putting it. "I was shocked. I just kind of said, 'OK ...' I turned around, gathered my things and crossed the aisle to where the gentleman was sitting. I tried to respect her wishes and engage now in what I considered a very private conversation. "I barely got a sentence out when she called me back up to the front. She said, 'At the next stop, both of you are off of this bus. I asked you to stop talking about it, and you won't.'" Mrs. Shocks and Mr. Smith obeyed the driver. "She just drove off," Mrs. Shocks recalls, still shaking her head in disbelief a week later. "She left us there. It was about 20 minutes after 5 o'clock. Full 5 o'clock traffic. It was freezing outside. The schedule said the next bus wasn't coming for an hour. She knew that. She's an employee, she knows they run hourly. She did not offer a transfer to another bus. I had kids to get to, to pick up from daycare. My husband was waiting for me to get to church, because it was Friday night. I didn't have an hour to wait in the cold for the next bus when my house was a little under a mile away, so I just started to walk." Her mile-long walk in the cold and rain led her right to the middle of what could become a major controversy over freedom of speech. Mrs. Shocks discussed the controversy with a local attorney; within a week the Rutherford Institute had stepped in. In the midst of all the clamor, Michelle Shocks seems a reluctant crusader. She's an intense but quiet young woman who speaks with her head slightly bowed, as if concentrating fiercely on every word. She expected her husband, Tim, would be the one in the national spotlight. As a middleweight professional boxer, Tim Shocks expects to have a prominent platform for sharing his faith if-when-he makes the big time. He was even taking through the church a class to train potential ministers so he'd be ready when the day arrived. Instead, it's his shyly articulate wife who finds herself with an unexpected opportunity to talk about God. That might never have happened if not for her friend Vanessa Waller, who ministers at Christ Life Center Church with her husband. Unlike Mrs. Shocks, "Sister Vanessa" is outspoken and animated, exuding a kind of confident energy. She talks with her head tilted back, an explosion of loose curls cascading down her shoulders. "My heart was just grieved, you know?" she asks, laying her hand flat against her chest for emphasis. That was why, unbeknownst to Mrs. Shocks, she began contacting the media on Monday. She called the local newspapers, radio stations, and television stations-not to mention People, Ebony, Jet, even Oprah. Had she been alleging racial discrimination, Mrs. Waller believes reporters would have been in an immediate uproar. But since the issue was religious discrimination, news reports were hard to find. Only one of Seattle's two daily papers bothered to run the story. But even that was enough to frighten Community Transit (CT). Five days after that stormy Friday night, CT officials released a one-page press release emphasizing the company line: By that time, the driver was contending that she had kicked the passengers off the bus not because of their religious conversation, but because she felt "intimidated" by Mr. Smith, who, she says, was arguing with her after being warned to speak more quietly. She also says she offered the ejected passengers a transfer, worth a dollar. "The driver requested that he sit down as she had to drive," the statement continues. "According to the driver, the gentleman continued his discussion in an increasingly agitated and aggressive manner. At one point, according to the driver, the male passenger held on to the pole next to the driver, moving into the driver's contained driving area, and inquired whether the driver was possessed by demons." Nonsense, says Mrs. Shocks. She insists that the driver had already told her to get off at the next stop, before the man ever approached to plead her case. "In [the driver's] mind, we were off that bus before he ever said anything to her." Furthermore, Mrs. Shocks says, she was never warned that she was talking too loudly. The driver, she insists, objected to the content of the conversation, not its volume. "Never once did she say, 'You're talking too loud. You need to lower your voice.' The only reason she called me up-she said the conversation matter was offensive to some of her riders who 'cannot get away from this topic.'" Neil Neroutsos, a CT spokesman, says his organization is trying its best to get to the bottom of the dispute. For the first time in its 23-year history, CT has hired an independent investigator to look into a customer's complaint. It should have been a fairly easy matter to establish who is telling the truth. Front and center on every bus, a small white camera above the driver's head records everything that happens onboard. Despite the fact that Mrs. Shocks complained about the incident and asked for an investigation as soon as she got home Friday night, the tape onboard the 710 bus was recycled after eight hours, erasing the only objective record of what actually transpired. Mr. Neroutsos says CT would normally pull a tape as evidence only in case of a criminal incident on one of its buses. "However," he adds, "in light of this situation, we're looking at that process. There may be incidents other than criminal incidents where we'd want that tape." In violation of company policy, the driver failed to report the incident to CT's dispatch office as soon as it happened. "Things were happening pretty quickly on the bus," Mr. Neroutsos explains. "Standard operating procedure is for a driver to report to our dispatch office immediately. In the quickly moving incident, she did not do that. However, she did fill out an incident report and file that later." Despite the fact that all such incidents are supposed to be reported, Mr. Neroutsos could not say how many riders had been ejected from CT buses in the past. But he did list the types of violations that might cause that to happen: "disorderly behavior, foul language, incidents where safety might become an issue." On a cold and drizzly Seattle afternoon, WORLD could not find a single rider who had witnessed such an incident. They'd seen plenty of unruly drunks and heard plenty of foul language, but always, they said, drivers had allowed the passengers to reach their destinations. One driver, however, said she had kicked people off her bus in the past. For what violation? "For being [expletives]," she replied, without going into further detail. A week after the incident, the Seattle Times ran a story that basically corroborates Mrs. Shocks's account. It quoted a passenger on the bus, Dario Mosquera: "I could hear their conversation, but nothing loud or offensive or rude. All of a sudden, the driver told them to keep it down." Meanwhile, Mrs. Shocks already seemed a bit tired as she told her story to WORLD. She has two children to care for, and another one due in four months. She has temp work to do when the agency calls. She has legal decisions to make, and interview requests are starting to pile up. She's already had to change her phone number to escape harassing calls. Yet she knows it's only just begun. In light of all that she's been through, will she think twice before she talks about Jesus again on the bus? Her head comes up as she answers without hesitation. She speaks intensely: "No, not at all.... If you've ever seen anything beautiful or phenomenal-be it God's nature, be it a mountain, be it a sunrise-you just want to run and tell everyone about it. You want them to see for themselves-'taste and see that the Lord is good.' That's the reason why I tell people about Christ Life Center Church. God is moving. He's real. He's real."

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