I lugged my bicycle down the stairs and across the subway platform because it was pouring when I got off work, and I hate to ride in the rain. There’s no wet as bad as bike-wet. While I waited for the train, I propped a book open on the handlebars. Seminary requires constant reading; but the book distracted me, and I didn’t pay enough attention to my proverbial surroundings before pushing the bike into the subway car and grabbing hold of the pole. I positioned the bike and myself in a comfortable balance and continued to read. Then the doors closed and the train pulled out of the station, and it was too late.
“It’s very quiet”, I thought, aware suddenly of the atmosphere and my own vulnerability. For a moment I kept my head down, trying to focus on the page, hoping that the fear and apprehension filling my bones were just false alarms; then I forced myself to lift my head and take in the view.
A large group of young, African-American males stared at me from the other end of the car. There were twelve, maybe fifteen of them, all teenagers, grouped together in a pack. And I realized they’d been staring at me since I pushed my bike aboard. And none of them were smiling, and silence conquered the rumbling of the train. And I felt very white and very middle-aged and very middleclass, and a mix of guilt and fear traveled like a chill down the middle of my spine.
I checked the window of the speeding train to see if I could gauge our location. A concrete wall flashed by. My heart pounded, and I started to pray on the inside while I smiled on the outside. I’m not sure what I was praying for exactly—protection, safety, the train to pull into a station—but I centered myself somehow by talking to God; and soon I was able to hear God, and God said: “Love them, Love them, Love them”.
And my whole heart filled with love. And when one of the young men yelled, “Didn’t you see that this is our car? Are you the stupidest white bitch that ever rode the trains?!”—I answered with laughter, and I felt love pouring through the laughter, and my fear ebbed and my heartbeat slowed. And my laughter was contagious, and half the young men laughed too. And I took a deep breath and kept praying. And the same still voice repeated in my head and in my heart and in my veins—Love them, Love them, Love them!
And then the young man who’d called out to me came forward, and he took the book from my hand. And he and I pitched in rhythm with the train, linked to the same silver commuter pole, dancers with a bicycle tire between them. And as his hand slide down, my hand reached out; and before we knew it—we were dancers holding hands. Love them, Love them, Love them!
The young man didn’t seem to notice that our hands were clasped, wrapped together around the pole for balance. And with his free hand, he held the book open and faced his friends. On the edge of their seats, in the aisles and hanging from the handrails, they poised like an audience ready for the play’s opening lines, but the actor struggled with his part; surprised perhaps to be reading a God-book, he stumbled with the script. And I started to help him sound out the syllables like Miss Jean Brodie of the subway. I held his hand and we swayed back and forth, body to body, spirit to spirit, struggling for equilibrium; and we sounded out God’s words together. Love them, Love them, Love them.
And the seconds passed while we read together, but our show didn’t satisfy the crowd. So my new young friend gave the book back to me and took a moment to think. Glancing back and forth between his expectant audience and the white woman with the book, he made a quick decision and stepped forward slightly to give himself some room.
In a flash, his pants were down and his bare bottom pointed in my direction. He was tall and lean and smooth with youth, and his thrusts and sways seemed more dance than threat.
“That is a beeeee-uuuuuu-teee-ful hiney!” I crooned, and the whole gang cheered and laughed and hooted. The young man laughed, too, as he zipped his pants and turned to face me. We looked at one another, and I loved him. And I knew that he felt the love; I witnessed the flash of love-recognition in his eyes.
We were all laughing when the train pulled into Penn Station. And then we were suddenly silent, and an unspoken agreement drifted through the train, an acknowledgement of something hard to name because it is so simple and so complicated. And then the train stopped and the doors opened, and the moment passed. And I smiled at my new friend and he smiled at me.
And I pushed my bicycle off the train and started across the platform, but I soon stopped to look back. Their faces pressed against the windows, the young men watched as I turned to face them. I lifted my hand to wave, and they all waved back—and they were simply children peering from the windows of a subway train, and my heart ached with love for them.
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…
1 John 4:18
subway photo by Kiera Feldman