Thursday, March 12, 2009

Church of the MTA

My morning subway ride began like most others. I sat on the 4 or 5 train, whichever had come first, in my usual car, on one of my usual benches, iPod tuned to the Flaming Lips (after several weeks of Sufjan, while I read Lolita), reading The Loved Ones, by Evelyn Waugh. I noticed this morning my tendency to do this, listen to one artist while I read a book, switching only when I've finished.

As happens about once a week on this particular commute, a man entered the train somewhere downtown, maybe Wall Street, and began speaking. Usually when this happens, it is loud and annoying, and I sit in my seat, staring at the floor, cringing and waiting for it to all be over. Often, it is a man who says that he has sandwiches for the poor and homeless, and that he is accepting donations. Occasionally, it is a homeless person apologizing for the interruption and asking for spare change. Last week, it was a man who yelled loudly and somewhat incoherently, punctuating his words by slamming his fist into the ceiling, yelling that the immigrants needed to stop sending their money home and that the Muslims should go home, and New Yorkers needed to protect "the 'hood." He talked for so long and seemed so disturbed that I finally got up and moved to another car.

This morning, when I heard a man's voice over my earphones, I thought, "Ugh. Here we go again." I was tired from working late and sleeping little last night. I was annoyed. But this guy wasn't yelling. He wasn't asking for anything. His voice was loud enough to hear, but it's tone was one of conviction and sincerity. I could see him from his belly down out of the corner of my eye as I stared at my book. He squeezed a dark knit cap in his pale left hand, which he raised and lowered as he spoke. I was curious. I stopped reading to listen to what he had to say. When I worked up the courage to look at him, I saw that his curly black hair was streaked with gray. He looked like he was of Jewish descent. He stared straight ahead as he spoke, not looking at me when I looked at him.

"Please consider," he said, "The love that God has for you. That he loved you so much that he sent his only son, Jesus, to suffer and die for you, so that you could be cleansed of your sins and have eternal life."

In a clear, even voice, he went through the whole story. God loves you. We are sinners. God sent his son Jesus to die in our place so that we could live eternally. God loves you. Life is hard, but at the end is eternal life if we believe in God, and repent of our sins. And God wants you to do so, because he loves you.

I have certainly heard this message in many ways, in many places, in many voices. I knew the verses he was going to quote before he said them, reciting them along with him in my head. But what I haven't heard in the more than two years that I've lived in this city is someone who is trying to tell people about Jesus do it in such a humble, unobtrusive way. I know that preaching on the subway is hardly unobtrusive, and as someone who hates it when people do this, I have to say that this man struck me, not only because he was obviously not mentally disturbed, not yelling, and not damnating, but because of his message of God's love in such a humble and sincere voice. The weight and burden of his message seemed to cause him almost physical pain.

Much of my criticism of Christians is that they make God look bad. I wanted to hug this man because he did not.

When I got off the train at 42 Street, he had finished his message. I believe he quietly left the car behind me. I prayed that God would bless this man who, counter to the many who alienate people with their, i'm sure, often sincere but misguided attempts at pushing God at the masses, is quietly preaching a message of God's love.

I left Grand Central feeling as though I had been to church.